Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"You as a Professor should stop bringing into the 21st century all this negativism"

What is the responsibility of a historian when visiting historic sites? Particularly if the historic interpretation at the site is found wanting?

Back in June I toured a historic house museum in the south. The interpretation there was so problematic that I wrote a letter to the director. I posted a modified version of it here, in which I removed any identifying information so as not embarrass the volunteers: Open Letter to the Curators of the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home. You should read that post if you have not already before you proceed.

Last month I received a reply--pretty blistering in parts, but with a lot of value in the way it illustrates the world view of at least some of the people who run historic sites, and the difficulty of getting them to improve the interpretation. I have removed specific references to the home and city, otherwise the letter is exactly as it was received.

Dear Mr. Cebula:
First of all, thank you for your historical
critic regarding the tour of the Munchausen
House...As you probably have learned that
many times history is abused and many times
told by so-called experts that reveal their
interpretations of what really took place 200 plus
years ago...It reminds me of the game many
years ago taught to me in the name of "gossip"..
By the time 10 people received a message told
to the first person, it changed and was
altered quite a bit by the time it hit the last 10th person...
Only the first person knows the truth.

The Declaration of Independence was written by
men of great strength and jeopardizing their
own families to sign was a signal of the type of
men that existed "then"....Can you deny that the
King would not have wanted to stop this document
if he could? The Crown for many centuries has
been guilty of intimidation, warnings and many
times murders that are masked as accidents..
If Benjamin Franklin said himself "'We must all
hang together, gentlemen, or else we shall most
assuredly hang separately." do these words sound
like a man who is not afraid of the consequences
in signing that beautiful document?  How can you say some of the signers
didn't suffer! We have a wonderful book in the
office "Signing Their Lives Away" put out by
Quirk books that would answer all your questions
in regards to their lives after signing...

The question about women being engaged and married at an early age is true in the South...
Because of a short life-span back then, it would
certainly have sped up the marriage process...
Both the wives of Baron Munchausen died in their
twenties..one with tuberculosis and the other during child birth....Of course not everyone died or
married young but the times were possibly more harsh on women than men and because
Ignorance and information
not given to that century made them more
vulnerable to fevers, infections and unsanitary
conditions for child bearing....

Yes, Baron Munchausen had slaves to manage his
2,500 acres in nearby town...
That, unfortunately was the law of the land with
Southerners and Northerners taking advantage...
Grant and Lee both had slaves.....
The House you visited had cooks and maids and a
carriage driver that were slaves to maintain the
property...If you go back to Africa and realize
that the black slaves that were rounded up , were rounded up by
their own kind...so blame should be shared by
everyone involved....my background is Greek and
I am proud that Greeks never allowed Greeks to
be given as slaves by their own....Now, I'm getting off the
subject at hand....The visitors that come to this
House want to be entertained by "sayings" from
the 18th century or "ghost stories"...You have to
understand the younger visitors know very little
about the Revolutionary War period, due to the
fact that the schools have gone downhill and do
not give this generation a good education ..The
younger students can barely start a sentence
without the word "like, like" and continue to
ramble with the worst English imaginable..

..We have a little difference of opinion in
regards to "Education" in the 1700s...We are
referring to our area, where it was
much more difficult to become educated as
apposed to a child in New England, where they
of course were established much earlier....Munchausen's
daughter "Princess Peach"
was sent to England boarding schools and came
back to our town where she decided in
to open a School for Girls in the
late 1780s... Her husband was stationed there
as a Doctor....

The Museum has for over 20 years given school
tours to 4th graders, gratis....Many times we
started telling the children about the slaves that
cooked and planted...The public schools that we
would give the history tour had a large percentage
of Black students, they seemed embarrassed to hear
that their forefathers were the slaves....many times
we would hear other students tease them about
being a slave...It was very disturbing to us that these children would feel less of a person if we
continued to banter about slavery....our "Mission
Statement" for this house is to preserve our
history, patriotic service and educational projects...Not to bring into the mix about a most
heinous practice that existed over two centuries ago...I feel that bringing up a hateful subject would
be cruel to the student, who would start hating
the messenger ..details of cruelty is a subject
most people with sensitivity do not want to hear about....So there you have it.
You as a Professor should stop bringing into the
21st century all this negativism...instead bring
the students out of the "Hate" mode so they
can live their lives with a more positive attitude...
and teach them about good things that people
do...the outreach of people that are in peril reach
out to America...not Russia or Greece or any
other country...make them proud that this
young land has given you and me a chance to
live a good life...that's all...Sorry for the delay in writing
back, but I was on vacation...

Patricia Pangloss
Manager-BVM Museum

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Patrick Henry Said What?: Or, How to Fact-Check an Internet "Quote"

An unfortunate side effect of this information superhighway thing is that a lot of the information that gets passed along is wrong. This is as true of historical information as any other kind. The web is crowded with imaginary black confederates, crank constitutional theories, and historical "quotes" that no one ever said.

A former student of mine is always putting up one historical "quote" or another from Brainy Quote or ThinkExist on his Facebook page. These sites are full of made up and real quotes side by side (Mark Twain in particular suffers terribly at their hands, along with the Founders and Yogi Berra). And these websites seem to plagiarize one another with abandon, so once something is out there, it is everywhere. So now I tell students to trace their quotes back to the source: "Find me the document by that person that is the origin of the quote," I tell them.

Case in point, the following "quote" for Patrick Henry, which is so widespread that it gets over 800,000 Google hits: "The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government -- lest it come to dominate our lives and interests."

Sounds great, patriotic and stirring and making a political point that has considerable modern-day relevance. But Patrick Henry never said it. He never wrote it. It is fake.

How can I be so sure? Google books is often a good source for getting to the facts. Here is the search. We see that the Henry quote appears in ten books from the last 15 years, including the Congressional Record (apparently by Representative Walter B. Jones of North Carolina), The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, and 
Chuck Norris' magisterial Black Belt Patriotism.

Yet the alleged quote appears not at all in any earlier works--not in any of the hundreds of books of Henry's writings, books about the constitutional debates, or biographies of Henry that are in the Google Books database. In fact it first pops up in print in 1994 (dawn of the internet era!) in a political book. If Henry really said something so quotable in his lifetime it is inconceivable that no one thought to quote it until 1994. The quote is a fake.

Further evidence that the quote is spurious is that it does not sound like Henry, who was after all an anti-federalist and opposed to the constitution, which he considered a Federalist plot. Hell, Henry refused an invitation to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, famously explaining "I smell a rat."

I could have performed this exercise with hundreds of other "quotes" from the Founders that you see plastered on bumper stickers and misspelled on Tea Party signs. So where do we look for real, verified historical quotes? My first suggestion is to read the primary sources. If you want to know what any one of the Founders thought about the Constitution read his collected writings. You could begin here. These are men whose thoughts on government were for the most part highly nuanced and sophisticated. No one-sentence take away, even if it is verified, is going to capture the richness and complexity of their thought.

OK, some of you are not going to do that. If you must go to a quotations website, use Wikiquotes. A spin-off  of the Wikipedia project, Wikiquotes tries to raise the bar by organizing the quotes into three categories: "Sourced" for verified quotes, "Attributed" for quotes whose provenance is uncertain, and "Misattributed" for things that are flat out wrong. It is a good idea, but crowd sourcing is only as good as the crowd, and as of this morning their Patrick Henry page included the fake constitution quote as "Sourced!" I fixed it--let's see if it stays fixed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

With Marcus and Narcissa to Pensacola

I just got word that my proposal has been accepted for the 2011 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History Conference in Pensacola this April. I am excited because the NCPH is by miles the most interesting history conference and Pensacola sounds pretty nice as well. Here is the proposal I submitted:

The Many Deaths of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman
The killings of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman cast a long shadow in the Pacific Northwest. Since the American missionaries died at the hands of their Cayuse charges in 1847, their deaths have been reinterpreted with each new generation according to its own needs and preconceptions. Today the landscape of south-central Washington and north-central Oregon hosts numerous and contradictory interpretations of the deaths of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman--morality plays with different moral lessons.

My presentation will look at some of the different ways that this controversial historical event is and has been presented in monuments, museums, and other public places. In particular I will focus on three locales: Whitman Mission National Historic Site, established in 1936 and (despite considerable updating in recent years) devoted to the “heroic” interpretation of the missionary encounter; Tam├ístslikt Cultural Institute, established by the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes and where the Whitmans are presented as dangerous invaders and cultural imperialists; and Nez Perce National Historical Park, established in 1965 in a partnership between the National Park Service and the Nez Perce and other native peoples where the death of the Whitmans is presented in a more even-handed manner. I will briefly examine other public monuments to the Whitmans including sites such as Whitman College and the Marcus Whitman Hotel.

The presentation will be incorporate many images, sound clips, and video from the sites examined.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Special Event Tomorrow at the MAC

David Nicandri, Director of the Western Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, will be at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture tomorrow, Wednesday September 15 at 6:30 p.m. to talk about "Deconstructing the Lore of Lewis and Clark." Announcement below the jump.

Nicandri is an excellent speaker and is as deeply immersed in the expedition as anyone I know. This should be good!

Wednesday Night at the Museum!

This new series of lectures and presentations will offer a wide range of reflective and forward-looking programs based on our exhibits and collections, as well as contemporary culture, history, art and film. Wednesday Night at the Museum partners include Spokane Chapter of the American Institute of Archaeology, Contemporary Arts Alliance (SpIFF), and the Visiting Artist Lecture Series. (There is no charge for the Archeological Society programs or the Visiting Artist Lectures. MAC programs and CAA/SpIFF films are $5.00.)
Museum and partner members receive special email calendar notices of the schedules for Wednesday Night at the Museum programs. Please watch for updates and edits to programming at www.northwestmuseum.org.
Wednesday, September 15  "Deconstructing the Lore of Lewis and Clark"  Author and historian David Nicandri will discuss his book, River of Promise that fills the gaps in our understanding of Lewis and Clark's legendary expedition. The MAC is proud to welcome Nicandri who is the director of the Western WA State Historical Society in Tacoma.  6:30 PM  in the Eric A. Johnston Auditorium  Admission is $5 to all.

"Metaphorically speaking, I came to appreciate the value of simply keeping the oar in the water. I imagine that this is something that Lewis and Clark imputed to the men with great regularity - it's a great life-lesson."    

      --David Nicandri

Monday, September 13, 2010

Peer Review 2.0?

Interesting piece over at the NY Times: For Scholars, Web Changes Sacred Rite of Peer Review. The article concerns the partnership between the Center for History and New Media and the Shakespeare Quarterly to experiment with an online, crowd-sourced system of scholarly peer review. The Chronicle of Higher Education also has a good article about the experiment, with some valuable remarks in the comments section.

Peer review, for those of you in the real world, is the process by which scholarship is vetted by experts in advance of publication. Peer-reviewed books and articles are considered the gold standard in academia, particularly for tenure and promotion. To say that a book or article is peer-reviewed is to say that it has been closely examined by another scholar or scholars with expertise in the field who looked it over for factual accuracy, relevance to other scholarship, originality, clarity of argument, and other factors. The big question is "Does this manuscript add to our understanding of its topic?" Peer-review in the humanities is usually single-blind, which is to say that the reviewer knows the identity of the author but the author does not get to know the identity of the reviewer(s). This is supposed to encourage the reviewer to be frank and honest. The reviewers can usually recommend publication, recommend publication after some specific revisions (the dreaded but often useful "revise and resubmit) or outright rejection.

It all sounds good on paper, and on paper is where traditional peer review takes place. But as the Times notes, "Clubby exclusiveness, sloppy editing and fraud have all marred peer review on occasion." That is putting it politely! I think that everyone who has been through the process has enjoyed thoughtful, constructive criticism and advice from conscientious reviewers. Some of us have also had reviewers who seem to have skimmed our manuscript and sunk our hopes of publication with half-baked objections. Though reviewers are supposed to be anonymous this very often breaks down in the small worlds of most academic subdisciplines. (Hint: When you put down your work a a peer reviewer on your C.V., don't list the name of the person whom you reviewed, because your university might put your CV online and blow your cover. I should add that Jay was the thoughtful and helpful type of reviewer and is an excellent scholar.)

And the process is glacially slow. Reviewers are paid at best a few hundred dollars for closely examining a book manuscript that could run many hundreds of pages. For an article we are paid nothing at all. We do it as a service to the profession, and because we want someone to do it for us when we submit a manuscript, and we do it on top of the many other duties that come with being an academic. So it is not unusual that it takes weeks and months for reviews to get back. The situation seems to be getting worse as academic publishers are placed under increasing strain. A friend of mine was encouraged by a major university press in his field to submit his book to them, eight months later he has no feedback and the editor is not answering his emails. My friend was hoping to leverage a book contract for a promotion, this will now have to wait another year.

So how did moving the process online and calling for greater participation work out for the Shakespeare Quarterly? I think it proved a great success.

The special issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly to serve as the guinea pig for the experiment focuses on “Shakespeare and New Media.” The peer-review period ran for three months and was widely publicized in the digital humanities world. You can see the papers and all of the review comments here. There was also a project blog.

My first impression was that there were fewer comments than I expected on most of the articles, particularly compared to the many thousands of edits and active talk pages for even moderately popular Wikipedia articles. The first requirement of crowd-sourcing is a crowd, and not that all that many Shakespeare scholars came to this party. The first essay, "Networks of Deep Impression: Shakespeare and the History of Information" by Alan Galey has about thirty comments, including the author's replies, and most of the comments are from 3-4 people. The second essay, Kate Rumbold's "From “Access” to “Creativity”: Shakespeare Institutions, New Media and the Language of Cultural Value" received nearly 100 comments.

As I began examining the comments, however, my opinion changed. The bulk of the comments are very thoughtful indeed, and the authors usually respond with equal professionalism. The scholarly exchange is similar to what happens at the best conference--at those rare occasions when 1) no one goes over their time and 2) the conversation period is not dominated by some blowhard making speeches from the floor.

A nice example of the exchange is in this section of Rumbold's essay (click on "5 Comments on paragraph 5") where Rumbold goes back-and-forth with three reviewers about the interpretation in a particular paragraph. This is light years better (and faster!) than the usual exchanges of typewritten comments via the intermediary of the journal editor.

The online peer review was both similar and different from normal scholarly peer review. There was no anonymity. The reviewers wrote their critiques under there real names. I wonder if this did not cause them to pull their punches in their more critical comments? At the same time, the experimented differed from a genuine crowd-sourced effort such as Wikipedia. The Shakespeare Quarterly reviewers were recruited by the journal editors from known scholars and had to be registered into the commenting system--it was not as if anyone with an interest in the topic could create an account and sound off. I think both of these were probably good decision at this stage in the experiment.

One wonders if the open source model tested with this issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly is sustainable. Can scholars continue to be recruited for future issues? There are some technically adept humanities professors out there, but there are still just as many who use their computer monitors to organize their Post-It notes. Will online peer review continue to make reviewers use their real names? I would love to see another experiment where the reviewers were screened, but anonymous. And would the model work with genuine crowd-sourcing--open registration, the ability of reviewers to rate one another's comments, etc.?

The print edition of this special issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly comes out on September 17. I don't know how the articles stack up in the world of Shakespeare Studies, but I think that the issue marks a milestone in the development of the digital humanities.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Post for Jerry Handfield

Jerry Handfield, the Washington State Archivist and one of my bosses, loves these Team Digital Preservation videos. DigitalPreservationEurope has created a series of these cartoons to help explain basic concepts of digital preservation. There are a half-dozen videos in the series so far, you can see the rest here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

At Gettysburg, Moral Panic Disguised as Historic Preservation

[Note: This is cross posted over at Civil War Memory.]

The Civil War Preservation Trust has just released a video decrying the proposed building of a casino near Gettysburg National Battlefield. I think the video is wretched and illustrates nearly everything that is wrong with how we remember and memorialize our history in this country.

Some background: A developer wants to open the "Mason-Dixon Resorts Casino" within an existing hotel and convention center a half-mile from the boundary of Gettysburg Park. Pennsylvania has allowed casino gambling since 2004, starting with slot machines and now including table games such as poker. A 2005 attempt to build a casino in Gettysburg was defeated. Now the developers are trying again, and the Civil War Preservation Trust and others are fighting back, in part with this video:

My objections to the video, and the cause, are as follows:

1. Why do we care what Sam Waterston and Matthew Broderick think about this? They are actors, people! They only pretended to have fought at Gettysburg. McCullough was the only real historian they used for the production. Show me David Blight and we'll talk.

2. The battlefield as it currently exists is hardly pristine--whatever that might mean in such a context. You can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting one gigantic monument or another. Now these monuments, many erected by battle survivors in the years and decades after the fight, are interesting historical artifacts in their own right. But they represent a tremendous departure from the way the field of battle might have looked on July 1, 1863. Beyond the matter of the monuments, the landscape is different from what it would have been in 1863. The trees have grown in (though the National Park Service is currently working to restore the 1863 landscape), the open fields are full of grass instead of crops, jets fly overhead. The smell of powder and rotting flesh are gone... It is not as if the battlefield were immaculately preserved and about to be ruined.

3. My strongest objection to the video is the fetishistic treatment of warfare as a sacred activity more meaningful than other human activity. We can't have people gambling, for God's sake, it cheapens the memory of three solid days of people slaughtering one another. Susan Eisenhower (whose expertise is helpfully captioned as "Grandaughter of President Eisenhower") complains that the casino is an attempt to "exploit the brand that is Gettysburg." But surely gambling is more wholesome than people lining up to blow one anothers' limbs off?

I know, I know, Lincoln started it: "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract..." The Biblical idea of consecration by blood was very popular in the 19th century. The 19th century is where it belongs.

4. This is selective outrage. The proposed casino will be a half-mile from the boundaries of the park and in an already existing hotel complex. (I had to look that up, the Civil War Preservation Trust would have you believe they are ready to bulldoze Little Round Top to make way for the slots.) A quick Google Map search for "shops" shows dozens of commercial businesses roughly the same distance from the battlefield, including the Cannonball Olde Tyme Malt Shop and Dirty Billy's Hats. Thr problem with this business, as the video makes clear around the half-way point, is that people will be gambling, and gambling is bad. I actually agree that gambling is a social ill, but it is also legal in Pennsylvania, like selling ice cream and hats.

5. My God, the over-the-top rhetoric in this video is terrible. It discredits not only the cause but the very idea of historic preservation. We are told that the casino will somehow "prostitute" the site. If this casino is built, we are assured, other casinos will pop up like toadstools at the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, Ground Zero, Lincoln Memorial, and presumably, your grandma's grave.

6. Where does it end? There were perhaps 10,000 conflicts within the Civil War. This National Park Service page lists hundreds of them. And notice that the anti-casino forces are objecting to something that is not on the federally defined battlefield at all, but nearby. One person calls for a "buffer zone" around the park--but how wide that buffer is supposed to be, and what commercial activities will be allowed within it, are mysteries.

The campaign to block the casino is not a legitimate effort of historic preservation. It is a moral panic being propagated by Puritan scolds. And it reminds me terribly of another current attempt to use history to block American citizens from exercising their rights to build a legal facility on their own land. Civil War Preservation Trust, meet Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Germans in the Woods" from StoryCorps

StoryCorps is a wonderful group that works "to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives." You have probably heard excerpts from some of their interviews on NPR. Lately they have begun working some of the interviews into short animations, of which this is my favorite:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wikipedia, Bound

Here is an interesting project!

On Wikipedia, Cultural Patrimony, and Historiography: This particular book—or rather, set of books—is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article’s inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages.

It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

James Bridle's printed and bound Wikipedia article the Iraq War, with edits, is a fantastic visualization of how Wikipedia works when covering a contentious and ongoing topic. "For the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information," Bridle enthuses. "Everything should have a history button."

I have mixed feelings. Whatever the opinions of academics like myself, the cultural importance of Wikipedia is only growing. I think it is fair to say that it has become the first stop for basic factual information for most people in our culture--college undergraduates, journalists, professionals in all kinds of fields, and (rumor has it) even a few history professors. There is no use fighting it anymore. At the same time I suspect the genesis of Wikipedia articles is fairly mysterious to most users. Brindle's row of bound volumes illustrates the mutability of Wikipedia. It is shifting sand.

What Brindle doesn't do is offer any analysis of the forces that went into the 12,000 edits of the Iraq War article. It would be interesting to see someone mine the data. Are there spikes in the editing activity, and do they coincide with breaking events? Can the users be divided into categories or factions, and how do the factions seek to control the narrative? What has the role of the moderators been in shaping the article? This article points to some interesting possibilities for such research. As one of the commenters over at MetaFilter wrote, "I guess that's the difference between 'making an art project' and 'writing a book.'"

Bridle's talk which accompanied the project is available online, as are the slides. His blog, booktwo.org, featuring "literature, technology and book futurism" is wonderfully thoughtful and interesting.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Urgent: Save the Teaching American History program

I see that the American Historical Association has issued a Call for Action regarding the endangered Teaching American History grant program. This post over at the National Coalition for History provides additional details.

The short version is this: The Department of Education is about to eliminate the Teaching American History program. The money will be reallocated to another funding pool. History programs may apply to that pool, but so will math and reading and everything else. We can safely predict that history will be all but forgotten.

To date the government has invested almost a billion dollars in history education. The money has revitalized the teaching of American history. The program has benefited far more people than public school teachers and their students. Participation in the TAH program has connected a whole generation of academic of academic and public historians to public school teachers and forged a nationwide community of history advocates. Those of us in the historical community need to rally and fight for this program.

Please take a moment to contact your local congressional representative and senator. You might send a copy of your email to President Obama and Secretary Duncan as well. Below is a sample of what your email might say--feel free to adapt, alter, or copy it outright:

Dear Congresswoman XX:

I am writing to encourage you to support continued funding for one of the most important educational initiatives of the last decade, the Teaching American History program at the Department of Education.

The Teaching American History program was championed by the late Senator Robert Byrd, and since its inception in 2001 has improved the teaching of American history for tens of thousands of students across the nation. It is the ONLY program at the Department of Education specifically targeted at history education.

Please support continuing the Teaching American History program as a stand-alone budget item in the Department of Education budget. Only by keeping history education as a separate item in the budget can the integrity of the program be maintained.

Your Constituent,