Why the fictional death of an imaginary girl is a better story than the actual death of a real young woman

Lizzy Seeberg: all too real

Next week, I’ll start teaching a Senior Seminar called Life and Death in Early America.  In reality, it’s mostly about death.  I’ve thrown in some stuff about disease, dirt, starvation, cannibalism, abortion, and contraception, just to keep things lively (so to speak), but the fact is that there is a fascinating new literature on death in my field.  Its common themes are:  how the afterlife was imagined in different places, times, and cultures; how death was experienced and interpreted; and how the living cared for the dying and the dead.

Another of the key features of this emerging subfield is a focus on commemoration:  how different cultures commemorate the dead, and why we remember some deaths and some of our dead and forget others.  Thanks to Manti T’eo, his imaginary girlfriend’s imaginary death, a real St. Mary’s College student’s death, and to Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post, I’ve got a terrific contemporary hook for when we talk about the politics of commemoration.  Henneberger explains:

So many tears for a fake dead girl, but none for a real one. The death of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s beautiful, brave girlfriend Lennay Kekau – widely reported by Sports Illustrated, CBS and many other media outlets — was all an elaborate hoax. So in response, my alma mater held the kind of emotional press conference for the fake dead girl that they never granted for the real one. As I’ve reported before, evidence that the University of Notre Dame covers up for sexual predators on the football team in hopes of winning some games has been mostly ignored. “Who can know?” my fellow alums asked, on their way to snap up some more “Play Like a Champion Today” tee-shirts ahead of the big game. But evidence that the school kept mum after learning that that the story of Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, who as she lay dying urged him to fight on to victory anyway – gosh, just like the Gipper — was concocted from start to finish? Now that’s a national story, and a real gut-punch to fans, involving important matters like the pursuit of the Heisman Trophy. Continue reading

Hats off to Mr. Warmup

We salute you!

I was going to comment on an Inside Higher Ed blog post by “Eliza Woolf” (cute pseudonym–get it?  Alternative:  Virginia Dolittle) because of its tag line, “Eliza Woolf wonders what to make of students who seem disengaged from class and then give her great evaluations.”  This has happened to me over the past few years, and I wondered if it was also happening to some of you.

But the blog post turned out to be extremely depressing in its portrait of an undergraduate population totally disengaged with college and even with one another.  (Go read it yourself–I don’t have the heart to quote even a little of the most depressing parts here.)  I’ve never had the experiences she describes to anywhere near the extent that she reports, although I think the point she makes about walking into a classroom or a lecture hall that’s completely quiet is an interesting one:

I’ve also become accustomed, oddly, to walking into large lecture halls packed with students sitting in near-total silence. The first time it happened I was really taken aback. Are they poised eagerly over their notebooks, ready to begin learning? Unfortunately, no. Some are just sitting there. Most are intimately engaged with their personal technology, be it an iPhone, iPad, iPod, i-book, what have you, blissfully unaware of either their surroundings or other students. Quite a few are caught up in online shopping, at Target, Amazon, Gap. It takes real effort on my part to get some of them to unplug, or at least to minimize whatever distracting screen they’re looking at, and pay attention for the duration of class.

This has started to happen in my classes–I walk into a silent room instead of a classroom happily chatting.  But I think this is less a generational phenomenon than an accidental phenomenon.   Students will be consulting their smart phones silently if there’s no one in the class who greets them and engages them–I do that when I walk in, but I’ve noticed that in some classes, I walk into a “warmup act” already in progress. Continue reading

The first rule of white club

Why do white people write as though “the South” is comprised only of white people?

A friend of mine, interviewing candidates for a fellowship, once complained that students trained at Yale always wrote “southern history” this way, in the tradition of C. Vann Woodward:  exclusive of African Americans.  My sense is that it’s only a matter of time for white conservative southerners, who will eventually be outnumbered by white northern in-migration, Mexican and Central American immigration, and African American re-migration as the great-grandchildren of the Great Migration return to their ancestors’ native land.

History is powerful, probably more powerful in the American South than in other American regions, so this will likely take the majority of the present century, but the shift is already well under way.  Continue reading

Hillary Clinton still too old, sick, and worst of all, unattractive

As I predicted earlier this week, the sneering, sexist dismissals of Hillary Clinton are back, baby.  And just like in 2007 and 2008, it’s not right-wingers leading the charge–it’s people on the so-called “progressive” side of things.  Meghan Daum writes in the Chicago Tribune today:

Clinton’s finale could hardly have been more dramatic. After falling ill with a stomach virus in early December, she fainted, suffered a concussion and landed in a hospital with a blood clot between her brain and skull. Meanwhile, her detractors drummed up conspiracy theories about “Benghazi fever,” and her supporters had a moment of genuine fear that Clinton might not be around to follow the script that so many have been writing for her over the last several years.

Really?  Getting a tummy bug and a bump on the head is “more dramatic” than, for example, having a chronic heart condition (eventually requiring a heart transplant) and shooting a guy in the face?  I thought that was a lot more dramatic, especially for someone considered perfectly fit to be a mechanical heartbeat away from the U.S. Presidency!  And wait–what about choking on pretzel while watching a football game?  Maybe that was more ridiculous than dramatic, but I’d hardly call Norovirus high drama.  On to the comments about Clinton’s looks: Continue reading

A dumb and dishonest view of American history education in Texas

Simple arithmetic foils dumb report!

Via Inside Higher Ed, we learned yesterday that the National Association of “Scholars” has issued a report on the alleged dominance of race, class, and gender in American history survey classes at both the University of Texas at Austin and at Texas A&M University.  Its analysis, called “Recasting History:  Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?,” claims that vitally important topics in political, intellectual, and military history (for example) are being ignored because of professors’ insistence on elevating “RCG” topics above all others:

We found that all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, or gender (RCG) social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history). The result is that these institutions frequently offered students a less-than-comprehensive picture of U.S. history, 5.

The report’s methodology, such as it is, is a laughably incomplete review of just course syllabi and web pages to determine faculty research interests in “RCG” topics, as the NAS calls it:  “[W]e divided course readings and faculty interests into 11 broad content categories well established in the discipline,” 10.  So, how do the course reading assignments in UT and TAMU American history courses break down?  Here are their numbers, found on p. 16 in the report.  I’ve taken the numbers from a chart and arranged the above topics in descending order in their appearance in course readings on syllabi: Continue reading

Just who does she think she is?

I am big. It’s the Bloomberg columnists who got small.

Michael Kinsey writes about what he calls “Hillary Clinton’s ego trips,” and proves that there’s no way you approach your professional life and responsibilities as a woman that won’t be held against you.  His main complaint seems to be that Hillary Clinton thinks she’s so big:

The world is a better place because of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. That’s not the question. The question is whether it is a better place because of those last 20 hours of her 80-hour work week. Or because of the extra miles she flew to distant capitals?

On one trip in 2009, according to the New York Times, “she traveled from talks with Palestinian leaders in Abu Dhabi to a midnight meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, then boarded a plane for Morocco, staying up all night to work on other issues, before going straight to a meeting of Arab leaders the next morning.”

Very impressive, but did it bring us any closer to peace in the Middle East?

Kind of strange, don’t you think?  Has anyone ever written about a man that he worked too hard or was just too dedicated to his job, let alone that his dedication was a form of self-aggrandizement?  What’s worse is that in Kinsey’s estimation, Hillary Clinton looks like a 65 year-old woman:

Clinton looks awful and has looked worse and worse for years, since long before her recent hospitalization for a blood clot resulting from a fall. I don’t mean to be ungallant. It’s just that she clearly has been working herself to death in her current job as well as in her past two, as senator and first lady. Continue reading