Monthly Archives: September 2008

Dropping in on the chiefs

As I’ve said before, I’ve grown fond of cruising Wikimapia, the collaborative website that lets visitors mark and describe sites on satellite photos.  The other day I was idly engaged in some virtual historical tourism and started looking up presidential homes.

Check out Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier.  Their entries are pretty much bare bones.  Jackson’s tomb and the museum facilities are indicated at the HermitageLincoln’s home doesn’t get the detailed treatment, which is a little odd, considering that the Park Service has researched the area and is developing its interpretation of some of the surrounding lots.

The big exception is Mount Vernon, which is marked up like a freshman term paper, right down to the smokehouse.  Maybe there’s a Washington enthusiast or Mount Vernon employee out there with a lot of time on his hands.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution, History and Memory, History on the Web, Museums and Historic Sites

Interview with Saratoga author

A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American RevolutionEarlier I posted about an upcoming Saratoga study by John Luzader, due out soon from Savas Beatie.  While visiting the publisher’s website, I just ran across an interview with Luzader, which is well worth reading.  He speaks favorably of both Horatio Gates and Benjamin Lincoln, two generals that haven’t gotten much favorable press. 

This book looks to be both a definitive account of the campaign and a provocative reassessment of some well-worn assumptions about the Revolutionary War.  I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

The short list?

At Civil War Bookshelf there’s an interesting item about a short list of Civil War titles recommended by Barnes & Noble.  The blogger in question is rather cynical of this endeavor, and in this case I’d have to agree. 

One of the five–five, mind you–titles that made the cut is Confederates in the Attic, a journalist’s account of elbow-rubbing with hardcore reenactors and unreconstructed political wackos.  What person in his right mind would select this as one of only five Civil War books to recommend?  Sure, it’s lively and entertaining, but the Civil War is such a fertile field of scholarship, and this book isn’t exactly the most enlightening fare. 

Furthermore, Confederates in the Attic represents the kind of personalized journalism that presents a writer’s subjective and idiosyncratic experiences as some kind of representation of truth.  This guy wants to understand America’s relationship with the Civil War, so he runs around with people who soak their clothes in urine, he hangs out in biker bars out in the middle of nowhere, and then he writes it all up for readers who will then conflate this freakshow with all history enthusiasts or with the entire South or whatever.  Nice work, Clark Kent. 

MacKinlay Kantor’s novel Andersonville also made the list.  That, too, seems like an odd choice.  If you’re going for novels, wouldn’t The Killer Angels make more sense?  Why, for that matter, include any novels at all?

A fictional work about a prison camp and an informal account of the neo-Confederate fringe both seem like weird essentials to me, especially alongside the likes of tried-and-true standards like Battle Cry of Freedom and Foote’s trilogy.

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography, History and Memory

Gettysburg Museum Controversy Marches On

And the uproar over the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center just keeps on coming.  Paul Taylor questions the role that context should play in battlefield exhibits, Eric Wittenberg agrees, and Kevin Levin has some updates here and here.  On a related note, WordPress allows me to track the traffic coming to specific posts on my blog, and I’ve noticed that my previous entries about the new Gettysburg exhibits continue to get more hits than most of my other effusions.

As I’ve said before, I enjoyed the new facility at Gettysburg, and I remain convinced that it’s a vast improvement over its predecessor.  In the first place, I don’t mind the information on causes and outcomes.  By explaining what the battle achieved, it makes the three days of fighting more relevant, not less so.  Normally I’d find all the attention to politics and slavery rather superfluous at a battlefield visitor center, but given Gettysburg’s importance and appeal, I think it’s valid to broaden the scope a bit.  Civil War aficionados know that all that marching, maneuvering and shooting meant something; the average tourist might need to be reminded.

In the second place, despite all the contextual material, the battle remains the primary focus of the exhibits, and rightly so.  Part of the controversy revolves around the number of artifacts included in the new exhibit as opposed to the old one.  That’s a valid point, but I reiterate that most visitors don’t have the tactical grasp of the battle that hardcore enthusiasts have.  The exhibits must convey this information to them, and it takes more than cases full of labeled weapons to do so.  What at impressed me the most about the new exhibits was the clarity with which they explained the battle’s complexity.  Making battles sensible is no easy task on the written page, but communicating via exhibitry is even more difficult, so this is no small accomplishment.

In other words, I agree with the critics that explaining the battle is the primary task at hand.  And that’s precisely why I appreciate the new exhibit galleries.

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Filed under Civil War, History on the Web, Museums and Historic Sites

New history blog

Steven Wilson is the curator and assistant director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum here in East Tennessee.  He also happens to be my former mentor and ex-boss, and one heck of a nice guy.  He’s just started a new blog called A Novel Idea of History, to which I humbly direct your attention.

Besides his work at the Lincoln site, Steven has managed museums specializing in everything from the frontier to firearms, and he maintains an active interest in military history.  He’s also the author of several historical novels.  Voyage of the Gray Wolves, Between the Hunters and the Hunted, and Armada are all set on the high seas during World War II.  His latest novel, President Lincoln’s Spy, centers on Civil War espionage.  Check out the books and make his blog part of your online reading list.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Filed under History on the Web

Teaching and Technology: The Rise of the Machines

I’m not an especially big fan of TV, and there are only a handful of shows I watch on a regular basis.  One is the original “Law & Order,” which I enjoy because it’s very story-driven.  One of my new favorites is “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” based on the film franchise in which a homicidal computer system uses cyborg assassins to carry out its plan to destroy mankind with nuclear weapons.  I have yet to miss an episode.  Three aspects of this show particularly appeal to me.  One is the fact that I love the original movies.  Another is Summer Glau, the highly attractive young lady who plays a re-programmed cyborg working for the human resistance.  Third, the dominant machine theme resonates with a dilemma facing those of us teaching in college classrooms nowadays.

When I started teaching college courses, the only gizmos I used were a dry-erase marker and an overhead projector for the occasional map or photograph.  It was a flexible system that worked pretty well.

Later I attended a faculty conference in which an outside speaker assured us that our students had the attention spans of small terriers, and that if we wanted them to understand and relate to the material, we had flipping well better start talking to them on their level.  (I should have been more skeptical when the sound unexpectedly kicked in during his PowerPoint presentation, scaring the living daylights out of his audience and causing him to leap two feet into the air.)  So when I had one class that was struggling with a survey course, I started creating PowerPoint presentations for each session, which I projected on a screen during class and posted before each meeting on a course website.  My lectures, bound as they now were to bulleted lists and images, became disjointed and shallow, a recitation of Greatest Hits of World Civilization since 1500.  The students, meanwhile, stopped assimilating the material into good, thorough notes.  Some of their grades actually got worse.

Now that I’m back in the classroom, I’m faced with the technology dilemma again.  Here are the conclusions I’ve arrived at so far:

1) I’m not at all opposed to having classrooms loaded with instructional aids.  Far from it.  The more in each room, the easier our jobs become.  There are times when pictures, maps, film clips, and sound not only enhance a lecture, but are necessary in order to fully grasp the material.  If the best way to incorporate these elements is to embed them into a PowerPoint slide, then so be it.  If classrooms offer us the flexibility to choose between a computer port, a document camera, and an old-fashioned marker board, then so much the better.  The content should determine the medium, not the other way around.  The more options instructors have available, the more effective they’ll be in the classroom.

2) The biggest obstacle to utilizing technology in the classroom is generally not the instructor, but the classroom itself.  We’ll gladly use what’s provided, but lugging your own projector to every class and hooking it up gets a little old.  The fact that facilities sometimes differ across the same campus makes the problem even more vexing.  What do you do when one of your classes is in the glorious new building equipped with screens and computer ports, but your other class meets in the antiquated building across campus?  Do you take it when you can get it, or do you try to keep your classes consistent?  It’s extremely difficult to prepare for your classes when each one requires a different methodology: PowerPoint for your Monday class in the new building, handouts for your Tuesday class in the old building, etc.

3) I believe we should all think twice before converting our lectures into PowerPoint presentations just because it’s the hip thing to do.  Some material is very ill-suited to the cookie-cutter, headline, bulleted list format of a computer slideshow.  History, for example, is complex, subtle, and interpretive.  I lecture from an outline that I keep before me on a lectern, but any student who simply copied that outline would be no more prepared for an exam than a visitor to a stadium would be prepared to relate the ebb and flow of a baseball game simply by copying the numbers off the scoreboard.

4) As instructors, we owe our students the most comprehensive, clear, and effective presentations we can prepare.  We don’t owe them fifteen weeks of non-stop entertainment.  We should keep their interest and stimulate them, but at the end of the day, learning takes work.  One of the purposes of a college education is learning how to think.  It takes a well-rounded, well-informed individual to function as an adult in the real world.

So-called “smart classrooms” are wonderful.  Let’s use them wisely, lest our smart classrooms churn out dumber and dumber college graduates.

(The nifty photo is from the Terminator Wiki.)

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Filed under Teaching History

Illinois Governor Sticks it to Historic Sites

If you haven’t already, head over to the Lincoln Studies blog and check out the most recent post about the $2.8 million budget cut that Gov. Blagojevich slapped on the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.  It’s already resulted in hour cutbacks and layoffs.  Protestors marched outisde the governor’s house this past weekend, and more power to ’em.

I can understand that one has to tighten the belt from time to time.  What I don’t get is the logic of hobbling the very institutions that will be pulling in tourist dollars during the upcoming Lincoln bicentennial.  I also don’t get how you can lay people off and shut down important heritage sites and then enjoy a $6,000 commute from Chicago to Springfield on a taxpayer-funded private jet when you should be either staying in the official residence in the capital or (at least) flying commerically.  Maybe that helps explain why only 13% of Illinois voters actually like this guy.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Museums and Historic Sites

What can you do with a photograph?

Stephen King once said something to the effect that his highest aim in writing horror stories is to engage readers’ deepest, psychological fears, while grossing them out with explicit nastiness is strictly a last resort.  That sums up my general attitude toward public history content.  Make ’em laugh and cry if you must, but do so in order to draw them into what you really have to say.  This is about education.  If you want catharsis, the Greek theater is down the road.

But there are times when hitting a visitor or a listener in the gut is either unavoidable or irresistable.  Take Civil War battlefield photos, for example.  They have such a simple and immediate emotional power that it’s hard to resist the temptation to throw one or two into an exhibit or a lecture for no reason other than to stop people dead in their tracks.  In fact, it’s somewhat hard to consider them as actual historical sources.  We pore over written documents and we analyze three-dimensional artifacts, but photos like these pack such an emotional wallop that it’s easier to throw them around with nothing but a simple caption.  Thanks to the work of creative scholars like William Frassanito, historians are more comfortable using photos critically as primary sources than they used to be. 

But these photos’ emotional impact may have a significant role to play yet.  In a recent item over at Civil War News, Garry Adelman points out that the pictures’ emotional appeal makes them very effective tools for generating interest in battlefield preservation, especially when we can link these photos to specific locations. 

Adelman’s got it right.  Making strides in preservation means changing hearts and minds so that people care about the sites.  Our abstract arguments about a battlefield’s significance aren’t nearly so eloquent as the upturned faces of men lying on the same ground that we plow and pave without a second thought.

(These two images, from Gettysburg and Spotsylvania, are from the fantastic Civil War photography section of the Library of Congress website.)

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Reading the Revolution

Next semester I might get the chance to design and teach a class on the American Revolution.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I’ve had the assigned reading for a course like this worked out in my head for years.

My favorite one-volume history of the Revolution is Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, part of the Oxford History of the United States.  An updated edition just came out a few years ago.  Comprehensive and readable, it’s the logical choice for the main textbook. 

I’d supplement that with Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, or maybe just the first few chapters.  It’s a very important study that clarifies a lot of otherwise puzzling aspects of the period’s rhetoric.  I don’t want to focus on politics to the exclusion of military affairs, so Joseph Plumb Martin’s firsthand account of life in the Continental Army would be a good middle-of-the-semester read.  I’d love to assign Charles Royster’s magnificent A Revolutionary People at War, too; it’s one of my all-time favorites.  Of course, I’d probably have to pick a chapter or two in order to fit it in with everything else.  I’d wrap things up with Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, assigning a final paper asking students to assess the Revolution’s results in light of Wood’s arguments and the other material covered during the class. 

This class, though, will be aimed specifically at non-history majors who are interested in taking an upper-level U.S. history course for one of their required electives.  I don’t want to smother their enthusiasm with too much reading material.  The Glorious Cause is massive (the new edition is over 700 pages), so if I stick with it, I’ll probably have to jettison some of the supplemental readings.  I could abandon a main text altogether and rely entirely on chapters and excerpts, but as a student I much preferred the convenience of a short stack of assigned books to the hassle of downloading or copying a different assigned reading every week.  My problem is that all these books are very near and dear to my heart, so I’m faced with some agonizing choices.

It’s therefore time for a little audience participation.  Chime in with any suggestions you might have, but bear in mind that this class will cover political, military, and social aspects of the struggle for independence.

(My thanks to the always-handy Wikimedia Commons for the Trumbull painting of the surrender at Yorktown.)


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Teaching History

Virtual tour of the French and Indian War

I’m working my way through a book that’s been on my reading list for a long time: Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.  It’s a fantastic piece of work that’s set me to thinking about the French and Indian War.

Some time ago, I posted about virtual battlefield touring via Wikimapia, the collaborative website that lets you mark points of interest on satellite imagery.  Since the French and Indian War is one of those overlooked conflicts, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find many relevant entries about it, but I was wrong.

It turns out that all those fortifications from the showdown between Britain and France make for some interesting landmarks.  Take a virtual visit to Fort Ticonderoga and the Fort Carillon battlefield, Fort William Henry, Fort Necessity, and Forts Duquesne and Pitt.  A major thoroughfare runs through the Pitt site, so only a few of the bastions have been reconstructed, but it’s still pretty neat.

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Filed under Colonial America, History on the Web