One step closer to killing support for the humanities?

Well, it looks like what we dreaded in January is one step closer to coming to pass.  Trump’s budget plan calls for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Nothing will change for the endowments or other agencies immediately. Congress writes the federal budget, not the president, and White House budget plans are largely political documents that telegraph a president’s priorities.

Yet never before have Republicans, who have proposed eliminating the endowments in the past, been so well-positioned to close the agencies, given their control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and now the president’s fiscal plan. Reagan administration officials wanted to slash the endowments at one point, for instance, but they faced a Democratic majority in the House (as well as Reagan friends from Hollywood who favored the endowments).

As for 2017, it is unclear whether Republicans who are friendly to the endowments will fight their own party’s president on their behalf. Mr. Trump went ahead with the proposal even though his daughter Ivanka is a longtime supporter of the arts, and Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, has been a staunch advocate for art therapy for years, being a painter herself.

Who benefits from these endowments?  Well, you do, for starters—assuming you’ve ever read a history book or novel, visited a museum or historic site, used a library or website to research your genealogy, watched a documentary, attended an author’s talk, etc., etc., etc.

Would killing these endowments save money?  Yeah, something like 0.006% of federal spending.  That’s not hyperbole, by the way; that’s literally how much of the federal budget the NEH and NEA accounted for last year.  Why anyone would want to kill agencies that do so much for so little is beyond me.

We really, really need to be contacting our lawmakers right now.

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Tiya Miles will discuss Native American and black history at UT

Dr. Tiya Miles, Mary Henrietta Graham Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, is coming to the University of Tennessee to discuss the historical intersections between African Americans and Native Americans.  Her lecture, “Call of the Ancestors: Historical Imagination and the Black and Native American Past,” will be in the Hodges Library’s Lindsay Young Auditorium at 3:30 on March 20.

Miles is the author of Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, and The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts.  She received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2011.

The lecture is free and open to the public, so I hope those of you who are in the Knoxville area will come by.  Should be interesting!

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Touch the work every day

A week ago I came down with a horrible respiratory infection that left me bedridden for several days and caused me to miss nearly an entire week of TA duty.  It also left me unable to make much progress on my dissertation research.  The problem wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t accomplish as much as I’d planned; the problem was that days passed without me doing anything to move my project along.

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of my mom’s friends who are involved in creative writing used to say, “You’ve got to touch it every day.”  I didn’t know how right they were before I started in on my dissertation in earnest.  If you’re working on a substantial project, don’t let a twenty-four-hour period pass without doing something—no matter how small—to keep it moving along.  It’s not so much a time issue as a quality-of-work issue.  I find that if I let a day pass without engaging the project, I end up losing more than just the hours.  I lose my bearings and my momentum, too.  When I get back to it, it’s like walking into a room that’s been sealed off for weeks; the air is stale, the furnishings are unfamiliar, and there’s a fine layer of dust everywhere.  You’ve got to keep everything in motion or a kind of general funk settles in, and you won’t be at your best until it dissipates.

I should add that you don’t necessarily have to be writing every day.  The resolution to do a little something every day doesn’t necessarily mean you should always be churning out prose.  (Most of what I’m doing at this point doesn’t involve putting words together.)  But you should be getting your hands dirty somehow, whether that means locating and poring over sources, reading through notes, juggling bibliographic entries, or knocking out grant proposals.  Even if you’re just putting in twenty or thirty minutes a day, do it.  The point isn’t those twenty or thirty minutes, but making sure you’ve engaged with your project before hitting the hay.

The only exception to this rule comes when you’ve completed a draft, at which point it’s best to let it sit for a while before you start revising.  But if you’re still in the research or rough draft phase, a day off will ultimately do more harm than good.

And on that note, I’ve lost too many days to recovery already.  Time to pop a cough drop and get back at it.

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Lecture on African American soldiers in WWI

Here’s an event to commemorate the centennial of American involvement in the Great War that might be of interest to those of you in the Knoxville area.

On Thursday, Feb. 23 UT’s Department of History and the Center for the Study of War and Society will co-host the Second Annual Fleming-Morrow Distinguished Lecture in African-American History.  Chad L. Williams, Associate Professor and Chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University, will discuss “Torchbearers of Democracy: The History and Legacy of African American Soldiers in World War I.”  Like his book of the same name, Williams’s talk will examine the 380,000 black soldiers whose WWI service was part of a larger battle waged both at home and abroad.

The lecture is at 5:30 p.m. in the Alumni Memorial Building, Room 210.  It’s free to the public, with a book signing to follow.

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Dusting off Civil War Bookshelf

It looks like Dimitri Rotov is blogging again after more than a year on hiatus.  And he’s just as dissatisfied as ever with the state of Civil War historiography.

I’ve always found his posts stimulating, even when I disagree with him (which is often).  It’s nice to see him back at the keyboard.

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Getting paid to learn from the masters

Ayers Hall at the University of Tennessee. By Gragghia at en.wikipedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ayers Hall at the University of Tennessee. By Gragghia at en.wikipedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I was sorry to see my semester as a graduate assistant at the McClung Museum come to an end.  It was a fantastic gig at a great institution with wonderful people, and reminded me how much I enjoy museum work.  I’m hoping I end up back there before my career as a Ph.D. student runs out.

Still, being a teaching assistant again has its perks.  What I love most about it isn’t so much being a teacher as being a learner.  Because TAs attend the professor’s lectures in addition to conducting the weekly discussion sections, we’re basically getting paid to learn from top-notch scholars.  It’s a pretty sweet deal, especially when you consider that most students have to pay or take out loans to take these courses.

And since graduate students usually get a new TA assignment every semester, we get to see the survey courses taught from a variety of different perspectives and using multiple approaches.  By the time we finish our degrees, we might sit through both halves of American history, world history, or Western Civ twice from beginning to end, hearing a new professor’s take on the material each time.  I doubt any other group of people in the world gets the benefit of such a wide-ranging education in history as we’re able to get just by showing up for work.

Graduate school can be grueling.  There’s no doubt about that.  But those of us who are able to work as apprentices to great professors should remember how lucky we are.

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Communication and a cryptid on the Tennessee frontier

I’ve run across some strange stuff while poking around in Tennessee’s early history, but nothing as bizarre as a newspaper report J.L. Bell has uncovered.

In the 1790s, militiamen on patrol in the Cumberland Mountains stumbled across a creature that “had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes, of a fiery red.”

When one of the men attacked the thing with his sword, “it jumped up, at least, eight feet” and then landed, spewing “a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a Laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.”

Yikes!  Soldiers on a wilderness mission come face-to-face with a grotesque, creepy-eyed beastie.  Seems like I’ve heard this one before…

Bell quotes the story as it appeared in the Hampshire Gazette on Sept. 24, 1794, and notes that it also popped up in various other newspapers with attributions to the Knoxville Gazette, the first paper published in what’s now Tennessee.  Unfortunately, searchable copies of the Knoxville Gazette aren’t yet available online.  But here’s the same item from the Aug, 30, 1794 issue of the Baltimore Daily Intelligencer.  It’s identical to the one Bell found in the Hampshire Gazette.

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Since the opening is addressed to “the Printers of the Knoxville Gazette,” I assume this is the same text that appeared in that paper.  One wonders who submitted it to the Knoxville Gazette in the first place, but there doesn’t seem to be a name attached to any of the versions available online.

The reference to Indian lore is interesting.  Reptilian creatures do appear in Cherokee mythology.  The most well-known is probably the Uktena, a great horned serpent bearing a crystal in its forehead.  But I’m not aware of any creature from southeastern Native lore matching the description of the thing these militiamen encountered.  As Bell notes, William Blount referred to it as “Cheeklaceella” when he mentioned the article in a 1798 letter to John Rhea.  I couldn’t find that word in an electronic search of texts on Indian mythology.  In fact, I couldn’t find it anywhere except in a printed version of Blount’s letter from Samuel Gordon Heiskell’s book on early Tennessee history.

What I find notable is the fact that newspapers across the country picked up this bizarre report from the Tennessee frontier.  Readers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Maryland would have read the story of the militiamen who encountered a mysterious creature in the Cumberland mountains, and editors in these cities seem to have been aware of what their colleagues on the frontier were printing.  Lately I’ve been going through letters written by settlers in southwestern Virginia during the Revolutionary era, and I’m surprised at how often they refer to events in Boston, Philadelphia, Yorktown, and even Europe.  Similarly, eastern newspapers picked up news from Kentucky and the Tennessee country and disseminated it all along the seaboard.  We tend to think of the eighteenth-century trans-Appalachian West as a remote, isolated region, but frontier folk were very much a part of early American communication networks.

Anyway, assuming the incident happened as the newspapers described, what did those militiamen see?  My money’s on some sort of crane with a skin disease, but you never know…

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