Stopping Reconstruction from falling through the cracks

Kevin Gannon has some worthwhile remarks on teaching Reconstruction.  He notes that one of the reasons we fail to do the subject justice is the way we divide the two halves of the U.S. survey course:

The standard two-semester survey model, for example, can give short shrift to a thorough examination of the postwar era. How many times has Reconstruction been pushed to the last day or two of class because we get behind in the schedule? And many of us start the second semester of the survey with the assumption that students “got Reconstruction” in the first portion? But what if they didn’t? Or what about those students who haven’t taken the first half of the survey?

I agree.  Cleaving the U.S. survey in twain at the 1865 or 1877 mark, as is customary, has consequences.  If you’re teaching the first half and you’re running low on time toward the end of the semester, it’s easy to gloss over Reconstruction.  And if you’re teaching the second half, you’re faced with two unsatisfactory options.  You can pick up the story at the end of the war and launch right into Reconstruction, but that separates the subject from the context out of which it arose.  Or you can leapfrog over Reconstruction and hope that whoever had your students the previous semester got around to it.

Of course, there’s an artificiality and arbitrariness inherent in any periodization scheme, and splitting the survey at any other point would create different problems.  But one thing I’ve done in the past is to begin the second half of the survey with the debate over the nature of Reconstruction between Lincoln and Radical Republicans.  That helps underscore what was at stake in the postwar period, and gets students thinking about Reconstruction as something other than an epilogue to Appomattox, a sort of post-credits scene after the main plot has been wrapped up.

I also think it’s useful to bring in historiography when dealing with Reconstruction in the survey.  Have students read some excerpts from the Dunning School, and then follow up with some DuBois.  This not only gets them thinking critically about the period, but also conveys a sense of history as a contest of interpretations and explanations.

By Waud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph), 1828-1891, artist. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Two lessons I’ve learned about writing a dissertation

In the past few days I’ve learned two things about writing a dissertation.  The first lesson is something I had to stumble across on my own; the second I got from somebody else.

By Marco Verch (Notizblock mit Stiften) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I always had this notion that research and writing were two distinct stages in any project like this, with the writing coming after most of the research was finished.  I’d spend a long time accumulating evidence, and then I’d sit down, sort it all out, and turn it into finished prose.  I’d still have some material to consult while working on early drafts, of course, but I thought I’d have the bulk of it done by the time I started stringing words together.

It hasn’t played out that way.  Writing itself—at least when you’re dealing with a project of this sort—is a process of discovery.  You can’t finish your research before starting to write, because your sense of what material you need will develop as you write.

Right now, for instance, I’m writing a foundational chapter on the meanings of eighteenth-century manhood, both in the English colonies in general and on the Appalachian frontier in particular.  Manhood was closely bound up with ownership of land.  I knew this when I started writing, and I’d acquired some good material on the links between land and manliness.  But once the writing commenced, it became apparent that I needed to explore these ties in more depth, and to do more digging into the historiography of land ownership.

Being OCD, I don’t like the idea of trying to compose text around ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.  It feels a bit like trying to put a puzzle together while looking through a keyhole.  But finding out that I have no choice in the matter—that I can’t have the ideas fully fleshed out until I start assembling them—has been liberating.  It’s eased some of my anxieties about doing historical research and writing.  Since I can’t plan out the whole route ahead of time, I might as well go ahead and start putting one foot in front of the other.

The other lesson is something Christina Snyder told a group of us grad students yesterday during her visit to campus: “A page a day is a dissertation in a year.”  That came as a revelation.  Another assumption I had about a substantial writing project is that you should do it in big chunks.  When I sit down at the keyboard and can’t produce anything more than a couple hundred words, it’s discouraging.  But sometimes productivity means something less like an avalanche and more like the steady drip-drip-drip of mineral-rich water that creates stalagmites.

One step at a time, and if you can’t see the whole route, you can at least see where to plant your foot next.  That’s what it boils down to.

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Age of Revolutions is rolling out a series on Native Americans

If you don’t already follow the Age of Revolutions blog, keep an eye out for a series of posts they’re rolling out over the next seven weeks.  Each piece looks at a dimension of the Native American experience in the American Revolution.  The contributors include some of my favorite historians, so I was doubly honored and excited when AoR’s editors invited me to join in.

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Christina Snyder will discuss ‘Great Crossings’ at UTK

This year’s Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture at the University of Tennessee looks to be pretty interesting.  Christina Snyder will deliver a talk based on her book Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson.

Snyder is McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State.  Her first book, Slavery in Indian Country, is well worth your time; I’d recommend it to anybody trying to sort out the history of captivity and race in early America.  Here’s some additional info on her talk:

Her lecture will examine how United States imperialism during the era of Indian Removal reshaped the geography of the freedom—or lack, thereof—of certain Americans and how it brought conflicting ideologies of race and slavery into contact with one another. The talk also will explore the strategies that people of color developed to navigate the shifting landscape.

Snyder’s book uses as a case study Great Crossings, an experimental community in Kentucky where America’s diverse peoples intersected and shared new visions of the continent’s future. The town got its name the previous century, when bison habitually crossed Elkhorn Creek at that shallow spot. By the 19th century, the bison had disappeared, but Great Crossings became a different kind of meeting ground, home to the first federal Indian school and a famous interracial family.

The lecture is at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 23, in room 103 of the Howard Baker Center.  It’s free and open to the public.

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A call to action on Blair Mountain

Quick: Name the biggest armed uprising in U.S. history since the Civil War.  Now name the largest labor uprising in America.  If you answered both questions with “Battle of Blair Mountain,” give yourself a pat on the back.

Adding Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places is a no-brainer.  Indeed, it was on the list until a judge decided to permit its withdrawal under circumstances that were—to put it mildly—rather shady.

Right now, we have a chance to help put Blair Mountain back on the registry were it belongs.  Between now and Oct. 26 you can email the keeper of the registry and let them know that this is a situation that needs to be rectified.  Drop them a line at Blair_mt_comments@nps.gov.

It will only take you a few minutes, but it’ll help save an indispensable part of American and Appalachian history.  This is one of the most imperiled historic sites in the country; it’s under imminent threat from coal companies who want to blast it to smithereens.  (No, seriously, they want to take the site of one of the biggest armed uprisings in the nation and blow it up.)

And if you’d like more information on what you can do to help and why the site is so important, check out Friends of Blair Mountain.

Fighting the Battle of Blair Mt. By Charleston Gazette [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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No on-air historians deployed in ‘The Vietnam War’

I’ve been enjoying the new Ken Burns series, especially the riveting firsthand accounts from Vietnam veterans on both sides.  But the absence of on-air commentary from historians has been an unpleasant surprise.  I’m not trying to imply that historians had no input in the series; I’m sure Burns has done his homework and consulted with a lot of knowledgeable people.  I’m talking about the way the series conveys information, not the quality of the content.

When a documentary uses historians as talking heads, it puts a human face on the discipline.  And by that, I don’t mean that it introduces audiences to individual scholars.  I mean that viewers can see how historical knowledge is something constructed by real live people.  It isn’t an assemblage of facts that descends from on high; instead, it’s a conversation among many voices working together, and sometimes arguing with one another.

When you watch The Civil War, for example, it’s clear that Barbara Fields, Ed Bearss, and Shelby Foote are asking different sorts of questions and approaching the same subject from distinct perspectives.  In the Vietnam series, by contrast, the eyewitness insights of participants are embedded within a single, overarching story told from the perspective of a seemingly omniscient narrator.

You might argue that a documentary about a war that’s still a living memory doesn’t need historians’ commentary as much as a series about the nineteenth century.  But I think historians’ voices are all the more necessary when you’re covering a subject as raw as the Vietnam War.

H Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment at Huế (National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

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The abject dread of putting words on paper

I’m at that point where it’s time to take the notes and outlines I’ve generated for my dissertation and start putting readable text on paper.  I should be psyched, but I’m terrified.  It’s like jumping off a cliff using a bungee cord made of dental floss.

Up until now, my dissertation has existed only in my own head, and as long it stays there, it can remain the platonic ideal of everything I want it to be.  But once I actualize it, it’ll never live up to that ideal.  It will only be as good as my own shortcomings as a researcher and writer allow.  The longer I delay putting words on paper, the longer I can avoid the dismay of realizing how far short of the ideal it’ll fall.

That’s always been the single greatest obstacle to my productivity.  The same fear of actualizing a project plagues me whenever I try to write something.  After I finished my master’s thesis, I could’ve turned it into a couple of scholarly articles in a matter of months, since the research and writing was more or less done.  But it literally took me years to send one of the chapters off for publication.  It didn’t take years to do the revisions, mind you, but to muster up the gumption to sit down and see it through.  I had the same experience trying to turn a seminar paper into an article draft this past summer…and again this past week, while trying to figure out how to articulate this dilemma for the blog post you’re now reading.  A good third of the posts I start to write for this blog end up in the trash bin for that same reason.

Lyman C. Draper, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one reason I’ve always felt a kind of kinship with nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper.  Like me, Draper was fascinated by the early frontier.  Also like me, he had a special affinity for the King’s Mountain; the only book he saw through to publication was a history of the battle.  He accumulated enough material, however, to write a shelf full of books on pioneers and frontier battles.  In fact, he conceived a number of book-length projects over the years: biographies of Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, a volume of “border forays,” collected sketches of prominent frontiersmen, and so on.

But he couldn’t bring any of them to completion.  Even the one book he managed to get published was plagued by delays.  Draper set out to write his King’s Mountain study at the instigation of colleagues who wanted him to get it out in time for the battle’s centennial.  He missed it by a year, in spite of his publisher’s incessant pleas to hurry things along.  He just couldn’t stop tweaking, double-checking, and accumulating more and more data.

Historians have attributed Draper’s lack of publications to a number of factors.  First and foremost, he was a collector and aggregator, happiest when he was transcribing manuscripts and interviewing pioneers and their descendants.  He was also an obsessive fact-checker who insisted on verifying every obscure scrap of local tradition he came across.  Finally, he had a streak of hypochondria a mile wide, and his repeated bouts with illnesses both real and imaginary interrupted his workflow.

But I think part of the problem was simple anxiety of the same sort that paralyzes me when I try to write out a piece of research.  The problem wasn’t that Draper had a poor work ethic.  He approached the task of chronicling frontier history with an almost religious zeal.  And I suspect it was that very zeal that helped do him in.  He knew he was sitting on a goldmine of material, and I think he feared that when he set pen to paper the results wouldn’t do his sources justice.  It was easier to go on collecting, and to let the platonic ideal of his book projects live on in his head and in his notes, where they could remain unsullied.  And, to be honest, Draper was a much better aggregator than a writer; his King’s Mountain book is more valuable for the material contained therein than as a work of historical literature.

Draper is one of my personal heroes, but he also serves as something of a cautionary tale.  For as long as I can remember—for much longer than I’ve wanted to be a historian, in fact—I’ve wanted to find things out and then write books about them.  But I’ve idealized the process of research and writing to such an extent that actually doing it paralyzes me to the point of inaction.

Being in grad school has helped, since I’m accountable to people who don’t hesitate to kick me in the pants when I’m not generating drafts.  And I feel better knowing I have access to professional mentors who can critique my work before I send it off for publication.  Once they tell me it’s up to snuff, I can let go of some of my own nagging feelings that it’s inadequate.

They say a pretty good project that’s completed is better than an outstanding one left undone.  And as far as one’s CV is concerned, I’m sure that’s true.  The hard part is internalizing that fact enough to put it into action.

And on that note, I need to get back to work.

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