history, Pedagogy

Facebook: Committee of Public Safety, Class of Sept. 1793–March 1794

Tomorrow my Western Civilization classes are watching and taking notes on the BBC documentary Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution. The documentary does a great job of detailing the inner workings of the Committee of Public Safety and the major developments and transformations during this most radical phase of the French Revolution.

If you’re eager, you can spend the next hour and half hanging out right here and screening the whole documentary courtesy of YouTube:

However, in preparing for my students to watch this documentary, I realized that keeping track of everyone beyond Robespierre could be a bit of a challenge without a handy-dandy guide to each of their names. I started scouring around the Internet to find a quick guide to each of the members with their image attached. While the Wikipedia page on the Committee of Public Safety had all their names listed, it did not have their pictures attached and, of course, the page included all the other material connecting with this entry.

So, in my infinite free-time, I decided to make the “Twelve Who Ruled” their own miniature Facebook, which you can see below.

And now, I’ve filled a major void in the Internet. You’re welcome!

history, Non-Teaching

“History Now” with Conor Bentley – Episode 2, featuring yours truly!

Conor Bentley – “History Now” courtesy of http://conorbentley.tumblr.com

As I’ve recently moved back to my hometown, I’ve had the chance to reconnect with a number of acquaintances with whom I grew up, catch up with them, and learn about all the cool things they’re up to currently.

One of the people who fits into this category is Conor Bentley, who I went to high school with and graduated a year after me. He’s presently working on some cool podcast projects, one of which is called “History Now” and focuses on bringing various historical moments to life through interesting editing, in-depth contextualization, and a unique presentation.

Conor interviewed me about five weeks ago regarding the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Impressively, Conor took the roughly 25 minutes of our interview and discussion about the Pavilion and turned it into a really nice final product that captures the core of my research and writing on this topic quite nicely. It was fun to get to talk with Conor about this topic and I think he’s done a really great job with the end product.

Check it out and you’ll get to hear my silky-smooth pipes – what could be more enticing than that! Also, Conor’s first episode of “History Now” was about the Great Chicago Fire and features my colleague, Dr. Fiona Halloran – check that one out too!

history, Technology

Political Party Timeline: An Outstanding Example of Information Reorganization

I figure if I don’t figure out how to make pithier and less ambitious posts, I may never write again. So in the spirit of getting something, anything, out to the world, I better pass along what I’m thinking about and working on, even if it isn’t terribly grandiose.

Today’s focus has to do with some great visualizations of U.S. political parties and their evolution over time. I encountered these timelines this past fall from Michael Berkowitz’s Trinity School American History webpage, and now that I’m about to teach about the history and function of political parties with my AP Government class, I thought they’d be great for that as well.

The timelines come from the University of North Carolina‘s LearnNC website, which seems like a valuable resource I need to explore more thoroughly. In any event, someone really clever there designed these nice timelines that illustrate the emergence, transformation, and evolution of political parties in the United States. I particularly like the way that it demonstrates how third and minor parties become subsumed into the major parties before and after critical elections. For example, the story of the Republican Party’s emergence can often be a pretty muddled one in standard textbook accounts, but I think these timelines do a great job of making that process clear.

Here they are — hope you find them helpful for U.S. History or a government class (or just for pure aesthetic and design enjoyment!).

Parties in the New Nation, courtesy of LearnNC.org

Parties in the Antebellum Era, Courtesy of LearnNC.org

Parties in the Gilded Age, Courtesy of LearnNC.org

Parties in the Early 20th Century, Courtesy of LearnNC.org

Historical Thinking, history, teaching

The fruits of my inefficient time usage: A Reconstruction Timeline!

Today with my U.S. History students we’re moving into a discussion of Reconstruction as a follow-up to our in-depth reading about Lincoln, race, slavery, and the historiographical debate over “who freed the slaves?” (Though this will have to be a separate post, the resources at Trinity School history teacher Michael Berkowitz’s website are amazing. That’s where I found the articles I used for this seminar discussion over the historiographical debate about “who freed the slaves?”)

As a way to lead into this discussion, and as a way to reinforce some of the historiographical discussion we’ve had in the past few days, I’m planning on talking about the historiography of Reconstruction before delving into the details of the era in question. Perhaps it’s a result of having taken two classes with Eric Foner in college, but I’m particularly struck by the obviousness with which the moment that historians studied and wrote about Reconstruction so clearly shaped their attitudes toward this twelve-year period. For instance, here’s a particularly telling clip from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation:

Also, I’ve still got my (impressively) thorough (if I may say so!) notes from those classes, which provides a nice basis on which to build and lead this discussion.

In preparing for this, and as a way to help make the students’ notetaking more structured, I creating two timelines related to Reconstruction — one designed to trace the historiography and one to trace the history of the era itself.

I ended up spending way more time than I should have fine tuning the location of lines and text boxes in Microsoft Word, and I’m sure there’s a more efficient way to create what I’ve generated here, but in any event, this is what I was able to figure out, so this is what I’ve made. In short, my poor use of time is, perhaps, your gain!

NB: (If anyone has suggestions for nice tools that create clean-looking blank timelines in a relatively short amount of time, please let me know).

Academic Skills, Geography, Historical Thinking, history, teaching

Backlog Post #1: The Market Revolution, Atlantic Context, and Information Reorganization

While my last post ostensibly was going to open the flood-gates of a number of new posts dealing with what I’ve been working on in my classes, that plan fell through (read: baby + grad school + teaching = neglect in this venue).

Nevertheless, as a way to prompt myself into wrapping up one of this week’s grad school assignments, I thought I’d post a recent assignment I worked through with my U.S. History class.

We’ve been looking at the early nineteenth century and examining some of the traditional narratives about presidents, political parties, and other developments of this era from a variety of historians’ perspectives. Keeping in this trend, we read an article by Seth Rockman about the significance of slavery in the Market Revolution. As the article (link included below) highlighted some of the important transatlantic connections that characterized the Market Revolution and situated the U.S. in a broader context (the leitmotif of my graduate studies at UT-Arlington), I thought I’d challenge my students to explore how Rockman makes these connections in his article by visually representing the phenomena he discusses on a blank map of the Atlantic basin.

Map of the North Atlantic - courtesy of d-maps.com

Not only did this assignment fall into one of my favorite pedagogical strategies of information reorganization, but it also provided an impetus to push the students to read the text more closely before we had our discussion on the reading. Now, before I end up rewriting the assignment in prose, I’ll go ahead and post it below:

Constructing Meaning in the Market Revolution, 1793-1860

Purpose and Learning Objectives:
The goal of this assignment is to get you to practice the skills of identifying arguments, assessing the type of evidence and method a historian uses, and to take that information and reorganize it in a meaningful manner. In particular, this assignment will get you thinking about interconnections and linkages and how those played out in the space of the North Atlantic during the first half of the nineteenth century.


  1. Actively read the Seth Rockman article, “Liberty is Land and Slaves: The Great Contradiction.”
  2. As you read, focus on the author’s a) argument; b) type and use of evidence; and, c) the way in which the author discusses the interconnections and linkages between the different parts of the Atlantic World that developed during the Market Revolution (esp. the years 1793-1860).
  3. Using the included outline map of the North Atlantic world, work to creatively reorganize the information presented in the article onto the map. Use the list of categories below to get yourself thinking about what type of information to include.

Elements/Categories to illustrate visually:

  • Movement of people (slaves, Indians, migrants — internal and external)
  • Movement of goods (manufactured, raw materials, food crops)
  • Transportation networks
  • Important natural features (e.g. rivers, canals, mountains, etc.)
  • Demographic information and links to social hierarchy
  • Important dates marking key developments

CONSIDER: How will you visually distinguish these elements?

There you have it! Fairly short, sweet, and straight-forward. What other strategies or approaches have people used to challenge their students to engage with a text in a more in-depth or different way? What suggestions or ideas do people have about ways to refine or improve an assignment like this?

Academic Skills, history, Technology

Reading, Organizing, and Synthesizing Vast Quantities of Information

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambr...

Graduate Education: It's all about the quest for medieval fur-lined robes! Image via Wikipedia

I feel like this title needs and “oh my” at the end as some sort of Wizard of Oz homage that will dress up an otherwise pretty wonky name for a post. Oh well. We’ll just have to be content with the circumlocution as it stands.

I’ve decided to return from my self-imposed blogging exile (which is really the result of too much other stuff going on. I know — lame excuse) to write a little bit about the aforementioned issue of reading and dealing with the information one gleans as a result of said reading.

Last week I met with my doctoral advisor to talk about my courses for the fall and my schedule for then taking comprehensive exams in the spring. In order to achieve the august (and all too frequent in today’s world of graduate education) status of A.B.D., I’ll have to pass a written an oral exam in three specific fields related to transatlantic history. Essentially these fields prepare you for further research on the dissertation and provide you with a solid foundation in the subject areas so that you could teach courses in those field as well. Preparations involve reading and synthesizing information from 20-30 books and articles in the given field, though at other universities things are often run quite differently.

Important aspects of this step in one’s doctoral studies involve figuring out how to work and review independently and discovering how to effectively manage a vast array of information about different authors, their arguments, methods, and sources. For historians, this means dealing extensively with the issue of historiography and thinking about how the era in which a work is written influences the author and argument and how those works respond to and challenge earlier scholarship. This task is manageable when dealing with a relatively constrained quantity of works, but as that list continues to expand and figuring out how to wrangle all those sources becomes a more arduous task.

I was further reminded of this conversation when I read an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning about how trying to teach students to love reading is essentially a fruitless task and that deep reading isn’t necessary for all the work with which we interact. While I’m not going to touch the former issue, I did think the latter issue had relevance for me as prepping for comps necessarily means figuring out ways to get the essentials out a text so that you can move onto the next one and think about them (and all the others you’ve read) in conjunction with one another.

As usual, when thinking about large-scale intellectual endeavors — particularly researching and writing seminar papers or articles — I like to consider how various computer programs or online resources can be of assistance. The preparation for comps seems like a sufficiently grandiose intellectual endeavor, and my advisor and I talked a bit about how she approached this task during her own doctoral studies. Her approach involved creating a Word document for each book she read for comps and within that document cataloging the following:

  • A summary of the argument
  • The sources the author used
  • The historiography for that work, particularly
    • Other works that the author agrees with or builds upon
    • Contrasting works that the author disagrees with or refutes
  • A critique of the work that could address any and all of the above categories.

I thought this framework made a lot of sense and provided a clear direction for what to be looking for in books as one read them — a crucial element, I think, for fostering engagement with a text when the reading isn’t purely for pleasure. However, I’m not a huge fan of using Word for this task, as Word generates a lot of separate files and doesn’t do a great job of making interconnecting the works very simple.

To these ends, I’d thought that using Scrivener might be an ideal solution. Since reading about Scrivener and downloading it earlier this summer, it’s become an indispensable part of my workflow, particularly for the research and writing I’m doing this summer on a U.S.-Mexico War digitization project.

Scrivener at work for translation of documents for a U.S.-Mexico War digitization project

In this case, I’d be able to create a Scrivener project for each of my exam fields, create a document for each of the books I’m reading, easily port in PDF files of book reviews and other documents about that work, and link the documents together. Also, I’d only have to open one project to then have access to all my writing about these works and could use the search feature to quickly and easily find things I’d written about earlier. For all those reasons, I think Scrivener is probably the tool I’ll use to get myself organized as I prepare for exams next spring.

However, today I also read about Notational Velocity in a post on ProfHacker. While Notational Velocity has the advantage of being free, its functionality of auto-identifying frequently used phrases and passages from other notes makes it appealing. This element would enable me to have the program prompt me as to when I was making a note about a topic, issue, or interpretation that I’d written about before, perhaps making the historiography linkages portion of my prep easier. I’ve downloaded and launched Notational Velocity, but need to play around with it a lot more before I can more definitively say how it might be helpful to me in this process.

Notational Velocity -- Useful in preparation for comps? Discuss! (note: this caption must be read with a Linda Richman accent)

How have others prepared for comps, either with newfangled programs and technology, or through tech-free approaches and time management techniques. Any guidance or (even better) examples of how to implement these approaches would be great! This seems like an area GradHacker might have touched on, so I’ll have to check that out. I’ve also got a lot more to learn about Scrivener and its multifaceted applications and powers, so if people have suggestions about uses for that program that would be life transforming, I’d love to hear about that as well.

history, Non-Teaching

Colbert & Palin: The “Truth” of the Past, Wikipedia, and Historical Re-enactment

All three of those elements came crashing together pretty humorously in a bit Stephen Colbert performed last week on his show, “The Colbert Report.” The particular topic of his segment had to do with Sarah Palin‘s description of Paul Revere‘s ride and the subsequent media response that followed her (disjointed, as Colbert makes clear) description of the event.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Certainly Palin’s description of Revere’s ride and the “accuracy” (or lack thereof), is an interesting topic, and one that Colbert addresses satirically throughout the piece. However, having consumed a lot of post-modernist Kool-Aid over the past five years, I’m pretty well willing to recognize that all descriptions of historical events are constructions of the past, none of which can ever embody the actual substance of “how it actually was” — the great goal of the nineteenth century German historian Leopold von Ranke (and something I’ve touched on earlier). While Palin’s portrayal doesn’t have the rigorous grounding in primary source material that say, David Hackett Fischer’s account does, it does reflect an interesting cultural moment in the United States as the country’s history plays an ever-more prominent role in political discourse and campaigning. (For more on that topic, see Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article and her recent book) . However, what’s far more interesting to me is the way that the past, and in particular a “national” past, is constantly harnessed for such (often) divergent ends by politicians, scholars, and others. This isn’t just a Tea Party thing (although it’s most prominent with them); it’s something that happens with politicians of all political stripes. In this respect, any portrayal of the Founders (which has such a unique deity-esque, cult status in this country) that emphasizes their “national” consciousness retroactively projects a modern worldview onto individuals that didn’t have those same conceptions, definitions, and word usages.

Sarah Palin's Paul Revere

Image by cayobo via Flickr - Original "Tom the Dancing Bug" cartoon by Ruben Bolling.

I found the segment’s discussion over the conflict that took place on the Wikipedia page for Paul Revere to also be really interesting. This contestation again speaks to the power of encyclopedias (which have now been supplanted by Wikipedia in terms being the go-to-reference authority) for their ability to convey “facts” and provide a definitive account of what happened. The fact that the Wikipedia page for Paul Revere got locked down by the site’s administrators suggests 1) how immediately different interest groups will work to find popularly accepted channels to convey their worldview, and 2) how poor many people’s critical lenses are when evaluating the sources of information they use. I was actually a bit disappointed that the Paul Revere Wikipedia page hadn’t gone all meta and included a self-referential section that talked about the controversy surrounding its editing/vandalism (a semantic distinction that will vary depending on your perspective).

However, this phenomenon of putting critical blinders on also seems to crop up in the journalistic scandals that result when news outlets immediately run with a story initially presented on Twitter. This new, widespread access to popularly-consulted forms of communicated — Wikipedia and Twitter amongst others — enables people at the grassroots level to have a rapid and dramatic impact on what the general public considers “fact” as they rush to push out material that serves their purpose. (Which, to get all meta on myself now, seems to be what I’m doing with this post. Hmm.) This same phenomenon also seemed to be at work in Anthony Weiner‘s immediate denials about his indiscreet postings to Twitter, as his first line of defense was, “My Twitter account got hacked,” a plausible, albeit weak, defense against his own wrong-doings that was based on the egalitarian nature of the modern internet.

Colbert’s final bit, which challenged even his impressive deadpan delivery skills, also points to the widespread appeal of and notion that historical re-enactment can shed light on the way the past “really happened.”

Stephen Colbert's Midnight Ride - Image courtesy of Colbert News Hub

While the incredible absurdity of Colbert’s re-enactment is pretty well evident to all audiences, I wonder how many degrees of difference separate this over-the-top performance from the types of re-enactments (most of which, in the United States, focus on the Civil War), that Tony Horwitz wrote about in Confederates in the Attic? At the core of all re-creations, does a desire to experience the “reality” of the past simply serve as a way to validate one’s own modern-day perspective on what “actually” happened? Of course, dressing up in heavy, tick-infested, woolen uniforms does lend one an air of historical authenticity (or modern-day clinical insanity). Nevertheless the re-creation can never escape the contemporary moment in which it is imagined, executed, and experienced. Colbert’s re-enactment took on the tone of the ridiculous by clearly highlighting the modern elements — the mechanical horse, him wearing a suit, and the ceremonial tossing of gunpowder over both his shoulders. However, it seems like Colbert was just being truthful about any attempt to know the “reality of the past” through a re-enactment as the contemporary forces that shape it inevitably move to the fore no matter how much one tries to turn a blind eye to them.