Living History

Clio’s Newest Tablet

June30

I’ve been thinking about social media a lot this week.

 

(Oh no, here she goes again…)

 

It has been an important week in history. As a social historian, I’m always curious about how “people at the time” reacted to events as they happened. It’s why I love reading letters and diaries, and why our entire discipline is built on primary documents. Secondary sources (such as a book about an event, analyzing it years after it happened) are very important, but primary sources, which were generated while things were happening, are the basis of everything we do as historians. Dispatches from the battlefield, telegrams, newspaper accounts, ledgers, ship manifests, and many, many other documents are offerings at the feet of Clio, the muse of history.

 

And now we have another form of primary documentation called social media. There’s a very good chance that what we post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sources will be around for an exceedingly long time. These posts will outlive us. They will be part of the testimony of our lives.

 

While I may not be the most tech-savvy person in America, I like to think I’m not a Luddite either. And I have, over the years, come to appreciate social media for the good things it can do. I’m much more connected with high school and college chums than I would have been if we were still relying on the post office. I can see whose children have graduated and whose grandchildren have been born. I’m delighted to absorb all the good news that comes across the news feed, the accomplishments and mileposts and just plain happiness that something like a shared picture of a vacation sunset or a playful kitten can bring.

 

But social media can be a hurtful thing as well. The stories of bullying and shaming have literally gone viral. This morning, as I was coming in to work, I recalled some dark moments in my life. I remembered being humiliated and bullied at places I thought were supposed to be safe—the classroom, the band room, the church youth group. These painful instances are seared into my memory. They never leave me, and while they don’t rule me I know they helped shape me. And I have not forgotten who did these things or how they were done.

 

But there is no evidence that they happened. It wasn’t written down, it doesn’t exist as a primary document in any library or archives. We didn’t have cell phone cameras or recorders, so I can’t show you how and when it occurred. And, as a historian, I know that memory is malleable, that the history in our heads is a collection of things that may or may not have happened as we think they did. I know how I felt but I will concede that my memories, as clear as they are to me, would not be valid in Clio’s court without some supporting evidence. I also know that I am not an angel, that I am imperfect, and that I may have been cruel to someone and have forgotten my actions. If I have ever wronged anyone who is reading this, then please know that I am sorry and that I try very hard not to be “that person” these days. If the last week in history has made me more aware of anything, it is the commandment to “love one another.”

 

Which brings me back to social media. I am grateful that we did not have it when I was in high school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we wrote our term papers out of the World Book Encyclopedia). I can only imagine how much worse it would have been to have the awkward moments of my young life captured and put on display. I’m sure there would have been a ‘mock’ Facebook account for my pimples, my ugly glasses, my extra pounds, and my general unpopularity.

 

I hope parents today are becoming aware of how important it is to provide guidance to their children on the use of social media. Most of the folks that I know who have kids are awesome parents and are sensitive to how a very old problem (bullying) can take on a technological twist.

 

But I also think those of us who are adults need to lead by example. We need to think that the things we post on social media could well be read when we are long in our graves. We are creating primary documents that someone might, in the future, use to judge us, to make assessments about the kind of persons we were and the lives we lived. Be assured, I am not saying that we shouldn’t write in response to events. Nor am I suggesting that outsiders censor any variety of opinion. After all, one of the greatest things about freedom of speech is that it also gives us the freedom to make ourselves ridiculous! But what I am suggesting is that we all take a moment to think before hitting that post button. Perhaps we should stop and ask some questions before we leave behind words and images for eternity: “Is this going to be helpful?” “Is this thoughtful?” “Am I backing up my point with valid evidence?” “Am I using rhetoric or am I just bloviating?”

 

And how about this—“Is what I am posting designed to hurt someone?” “Am I doing this to be provocative, to be witty, or to be hateful?” “Am I expressing myself gracefully or am I spreading fear?” “Am I being an internet bully?” “Is my lack of empathy showing?”

 

And perhaps most importantly, “Is this how I want people to remember me?”

 

Justice may be blind, but Clio never blinks. In her hand is a tablet, and beside her is a horn. How do you want to be written up and what tune would you like her to play to your descendants?

Clio-Mignard

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Frozen Learning

November12

This summer, I was diagnosed with a strange condition called frozen shoulder.  Basically, I could no longer lift my left arm more than two or three inches away from my body, and getting my hand over my head was impossible.  Physical therapy was attempted, and failed, which meant I had to have a shoulder manipulation, a thoroughly unpleasant procedure that entailed undergoing general anesthesia.  Getting older is not for wimps!

Knowing that I would have to do this—and being aware that I might have to spend several weeks on very strong pain-killers—gave me great concern for my classes.  I hate getting behind in a class, and I feared  that my lectures might be somewhat bizarre if given under the influence of medication.  So to counter the possible loss of class time I rededicated myself to Moodle (our version of online materials for classes).  I posted study guides, the powerpoint slides from class, extra materials for enhancement, and  learned how to record podcasts so that I could ‘lecture’ from home.  I recorded myself talking about the readings, trying to help unravel concepts that students had previously complained were difficult to understand .  I even found some humorous videos that illustrated the ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and the ‘English Civil War’ with song and dance.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to miss much time, and a few students have complimented me on the new materials they had access to.  It’s better than a dose of oxycodone to have a student say “thank you, that was really helpful.”  But unfortunately the students who most NEED that extra help are the ones who stubbornly refuse to use it.  And nothing I can do—no amount of pleading, persuading, or downright threatening—makes a difference.  The student who only wants a C or who values the sorority/fraternity/athletic schedule more than academics does not care about how hard I work for his/her benefit.

I think I’ve learned some things from this semester’s experience.  The first and most important is that I’m really blessed to be at a place where people care about you!  My colleagues in the history department have been wonderful throughout this experience and keep my spirits up with gentle teasing about my ‘torture chair’ (that helps stretch my arm) and my ‘gizmo’ that runs electric currents through the muscles to block the pain.  And for the most part, my students have been understanding and not upbraided me for having to sit down while I lecture.  More than one has shared his/her orthopedic nightmare with me.

I’ve also learned a lot from having to ‘think outside the box’ about my classes.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I am even more opposed to the very idea of online classes.  There is no substitute for the interaction of professors and students.  It’s good and necessary to have outside assignments, but the best guarantee of getting the point across is being able to look a student in the eye while talking to him and giving that student the chance to ask questions.  Plus, there’s learning that transcends the class material, learning that comes from the human connection  one can’t make through a online powerpoint presentation or a podcast.  A few days ago, after coming to my office to review material, a student said to me, “You made a joke in class about Miley Cyrus—how do you even know who she is?”  That brought on a lot of laughter and maybe a confirmation that I am human being who watches TV, not an academic vampire who retreats to her book-lined crypt at night!  Our professor/student interactions—the discussions, debates, and ramblings—are part of what makes a small liberal arts college special.  I don’t want to know my students only as names on a computer roster, I want to know them as young people who are curious, who are finding their way to a discipline that they love, and who can be just so much fun to be around.

The other major thing I’ve learned is that while we should be open and innovative as instructors, we should also know our own strengths and play to them.  It’s OK to try new things, but we should never abandon what we know works.  I’m a terrible discussion leader, but I’m a fairly decent lecturer.  I probably would not fare well in a ‘flipped’ classroom; call me old school, but that’s how I roll.  I’m willing to work very hard and do extra things to help my students (even the one’s who don’t appreciate it), but in the end I think students respond most intensely to their instructor’s strengths.  If we do certain things well, I don’t believe that our students are sitting there wishing we would change them.  I don’t think a perfect professor, with a brilliant mastery of all types of pedagogy, exists anywhere on this planet.  Maybe we need to stop beating ourselves up every time an article appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education or a fancy new technique is discussed at a conference and we haven’t tried it yet.  Openness is good, we should be willing to try something new the way we urge our students to—but confidence in solid, proven methods that we can manage with flair is nothing to be ashamed of or abandoned.

I’ll keep some of my new techniques from this semester, even when I can once again throw like a girl with my left arm!  But I’ve come out of this experience with the realization that not everything works for me and I don’t have to feel bad about that.  So maybe it was worth it all to be a little thawed out.

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An Open Letter To A First Year Student

August22

Dear First Year Student,

 

Welcome to your last weekend before you arrive at Wofford College.  Congratulations on becoming a member of the Wofford Class of 2017.  We expect great things from you and all your peers, and we are looking forward to getting to know you well in the days to come.

 

If you’ll permit me, I’d like to make a few suggestions for you, give you some tips that I think might help make your transition go a bit more smoothly.  My ideas come from having been a faculty member at Wofford since 1991, and having worked with first year students (you’ll forgive me if I slip and use the term freshmen, I am a bit old-school) every fall.  Here’s a list of things I think you need to bring, and a few to leave behind.

 

Bring your curiosity.  All those questions you have, all those conundrums you haven’t worked out, all those puzzles that keep you awake at night, pack them up and make sure they arrive intact. In college there are no ‘dumb questions.’  I can’t promise you that we have all the answers; in fact, some of your inquiries may be unanswerable.  But if there is a reason for the academy to exist, it is to ask and seek answers to questions in all disciplines and all experiences of life.  Whatever you are curious about, there will be someone at Wofford to talk to, a person who perhaps asked the same question or faced the same problem.

 

Bring your openness to others.  Your generation is praised for its acceptance, for the way it takes race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation in stride.  Bring your smiles, handshakes, and hugs.  You are Wofford family now.  Keep that in mind, especially during orientation, and you will find that homesickness can be kept at bay.  Instead of missing your first family, stay focused on getting to know your new one.

 

Bring your enthusiasm.  Bring your creativity.  Bring the joy of being so young.  There’s no shame in being a freshman, there’s only the knowledge that there’s a lot to learn in a very short time, so many things to master, from how to write a BIO 150 poster to how to wash your clothes.  It’s a ton of stuff, but you can handle it.

 

So what should you leave at home?  Trust me, you don’t need every t-shirt you own, or every electronic gadget, or a television with a screen that rivals the stadium jumbotron.  You don’t need a stack of reference books or even your Harry Potter collection. (We have a library.  Learn to use it!)  You don’t need your spelling bee trophies, you don’t need your beauty pageant ribbons or your little league mitts.  Sure there will be things from high school you will want with you as fond reminders of good times, but if you continue to wear all your old ‘spirit day’ shirts and brag about how you were the ‘Pumpkin Princess,’ then you may have trouble adapting to life at college.

 

What’s the most important thing to leave at home?  Without a doubt, the most important thing to stay behind is your ‘senior’ attitude.  Maybe you were a ‘big deal’ at your school.  Maybe you were class president and head cheerleader or valedictorian and football captain.  But so were a lot of other members of your class.  Nobody comes in as number one, and everyone has to work hard to do well.  If your academic attitude can be summed up in these words—‘well, I never had to crack a book to get good grades’—then it most definitely needs to stay at home with your parents.  Every year I try to say this to freshmen, as nicely as I can, and every year some of these young people roll their eyes and sneer.  About a month later, they’re wiping their eyes and blowing their noses, wondering ‘how could this terrible grade have happened.’  Welcome to college—you’re not in high school any more!

 

This is one of the most exciting weekends of your lives.  You’re saying goodbye not only to family and friends, but also to a version of yourself.  A new place waits for you; you can become a new person within it.  Take the best of who you are, of your good attitudes and attributes, and try to leave the trivial, the unnecessary, and the unflattering aspects behind.

 

We can’t wait to meet you.  We’ll see you soon.

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History’s Mirror

February28

The Civil War is always my most popular class.  It’s the one I can count on filling up very quickly, and it was that way long before I began teaching it.  I suspect it has always been a big ‘draw’ at Wofford, from the late 1900s on.  But I often find myself wondering why this is.  What is it about the Civil War that makes it a course students want to take?

 

There are many possible answers to that question.  Lots of students prefer American history because it is more familiar and comfortable to them.  A few will say that they want to know more about the war because of a family connection: they may have great-great grandpa’s military records or great-great-grandma’s tattered diary.  Some just like learning about battles and bloodshed—let’s face it, if it wasn’t for violence in human nature, we historians would be out of our jobs!  Young people say they want to know more about the central issues of the nineteenth century, and a few students will confess to being drawn to the war because of modern controversies over things like renaming parks or flying the Confederate battle flag.  One student told me that, as a recent migrant from the North, she has yet to comprehend the Southern fascination with the ‘late unpleasantness’ and hoped that by learning more about the war she would develop a better understanding of her adopted region.

 

This afternoon, as I was lecturing about the common soldier of the war, I felt like I had a new insight into what it is that attracts so many students, especially our young Wofford men.  While looking at an image of a quartet of soldiers, I was stuck by how easily they could have been a group of Wofford guys.  Shave off the big mustaches, change the clothes, and it easily could have been my HIS 314 troupers sitting in that picture.  They are exactly the right age cohort for the largest number of men who fought and died in the American Civil War.  Something about the image was haunting, and looking at my class I sensed that they felt it as well and were (I hope) pondering history’s biggest questions—What if I had been there?  What would I have done?  What choices would I have made?

 

There are many wars, of course, and many soldiers who are reflections of my students.  What is it that makes this conflict different or special?  Perhaps it is because the Civil War is the first American war to be covered with photography. These images, so high-tech for their time, still speak with pathos and clarity.  And perhaps because most of my young men and women are from the South, with its romantic attachments to a ‘lost way of life,’ and yet are also intellectual creatures of the 21st century, with the ability to think critically and look back on slavery as the moral evil that is was, that they are so intensely caught in the paradox of time and so willing to question what they would have done had they lived within the daguerreotype’s lens.

 

I suspect few of us ever think deeply about the power of pictures in drawing us to a particular historical era.  Yet the carvings of Ancient Egypt, the tapestries of the Middle Ages, and the paintings of the Renaissance all work as these photographs do, grabbing the imagination and transporting us to other places and times.  I’m not much on technology, but I am grateful for powerpoint, because of how easily I can show my students what how people envisioned themselves and, later, how they actually appeared.  I’ve always held that the historian’s most important tool is his or her imagination, and pictures enable us to cast the movies in our minds.

 

Perhaps this helps explain the intense and often moving empathy that students develop for the soldiers of the Civil War—and for the slaves, the women, and the leaders as well.  Looking at these early photographs, we can see—for the first time—how very much alike we are to our ancestors, and how little mankind has changed.  The camera is history’s mirror.

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Sherlock Sticks With Scholars

February21

Last Saturday was Scholars’ Day at Wofford College, a time when high school seniors who are considering Wofford converge on the school to be interviewed.  Particularly impressive candidates may receive scholarships as a result of their hour-long conversations with a panel composed of a faculty member, a current student, and a Wofford graduate.  As young people seek to impress the panelists, the panelists are also charged with courting the students, since many of these folks are considering our rival colleges (Davidson, Furman, etc.) as well.  With education costs rising, enrollment battles have become particularly fierce the last few years, so everyone needs to bring an ‘A-game’ to this contest.

 

I have always been impressed by the number of alumni who are willing to return to Wofford on a miserable February Saturday to help in this essential task.  I’m not sure that my loyalty to my old university would ever be that strong!  But each year I see people who graduated in years ranging from the 1950s to the most recently matriculated class happily come home for this chore.

 

I was gathering up my things to go to the meeting when I heard a knock on my office door.  There were two former students of mine who had taken the time to look me up and say hello.  Both are medical folks: she is already a practicing OB/GYN and he is in his final year of medical school.  We quickly caught up on our lives, and as he prepared to depart, Mr. Hufford—who had been in my Sherlock Holmes Humanities class as a freshman—promised to send me an article from a medical journal, which argued that all potential doctors should immerse themselves in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

 

And that promise got me to thinking about what it is we really remember about our college experiences.  I doubt that most of us—even those of us who might be accused of having too much education!—can recite any particular lesson.  I would be hard pressed to recall the names of my textbooks, or even the monographs I read in graduate seminars.  Classes that I sat through in order to meet requirements have vanished from my memory.  I am far more likely to recall that a particular professor was funny, or boring, or especially difficult to please than I am to be able to discuss the content of his/her course.  Even my beloved major professor is clearer to me for how he taught—his amusing phrases, his way with a story, the twirling of his spectacles in one hand—than for the exactness of the dates and facts I learned in his class.

 

Clearly, Mr. Hufford had learned a great deal at Wofford—he was in Phi Beta Kappa and glided into medical school.  I’m sure he remembers many, many things.  But I was so touched to find that Sherlock Holmes was still a part of his life, enough so that he would still want to share an article with me, his now ancient and decrepit former instructor!  Sherlock had clearly ‘stuck’ with him.  And I know that Holmes has staying powers with other students as well.  I’ve often received notes from students in the years after graduation.  One student told me that his copy of the canon was the ONLY book he didn’t sell back at graduation!

 

College is a treasure-house of memories.  Students don’t always remember content (I have no illusions that my Western Civilization students will recall the details of the Hundred Years War or the French Revolution a decade from now!) but hopefully their exposure to the liberal arts will inspire lifelong curiosity and respect for learning.  Even if the exact nature (and grade) of a research paper is dismissed, the ability to do research, think critically about a thesis, and write clearly remains.  Young people may forget classes, but they will recall their friends, their good times and their struggles, and emerge from Wofford with the maturity and self-reliance to take on the world.  I like to think that Wofford students leave us with the best ideas, examples, and challenges we can give them.

 

Clearly, Mr. Hufford left with Sherlock Holmes in his medical school survival arsenal!  I can’t takeSilhouettecredit for that.  All the credit belongs to the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle, who crafted a series of stories that embody the liberal arts.  The canon makes one think about science, history, psychology, art, music, politics, government, technology, sociology, criminology, and gender relations.  A thoughtful reader will confront issues of colonialism, sexism, and racism.  Most importantly, the Sherlock Holmes stories are invitations to critical thinking, which is the beating heart of higher education.

 

I’m delighted that many of my students take Sherlock with them, because he can always lead them back to being Wofford scholars.

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No Regrets, Lots of Lessons

December21

I was reading my Twitter account a few days ago and noted a comment from a non-Wofford student that had been re-tweeted (basically copied and sent out to the world) by another non-Wofford student of my acquaintance.   The young man bemoaned his low grades and bad experiences, hoped that his chemistry professor had a miserable Christmas, and whined “I wish I could just start this whole freshman year over.”

 

His statement contrasts sharply to the thoughts expressed by the students in my Humanities 101 class.  Each time I teach HUM 101, on the last day we meet I ask my young people a simple question: “What have you learned this semester?”  I tell them that I don’t want to hear mathematical formulas or lists of historical figures, but the important information they have gleaned about themselves since the first of September.

 

I’m always delighted by the diversity of the answers.  This class ranged from the cocksure (“I  haven’t changed at all!”) to the humbled (“I’ve learned I shouldn’t be so quick to judge people”) to the practical (“I can do my laundry”).   A few students were shocked by how much harder college classes were compared to high school: “BIO 150 is kicking my butt” and “all I do is study!”  One young man felt he’d learned to stand up for himself and wouldn’t be pushed around anymore; we joked that his parents might be in for a shock when he arrived at home for Christmas with this new attitude!  Several of the young women admitted that they’d moved in with fears, of being lonely or feeling out of place, and now they couldn’t imagine why they’d been so tense, since they’d made friends easily and were having a lot of fun.  One young woman put it concisely—“Wofford ROCKS!”

 

What stands out to me is not that every student found life at Wofford to be perfect; almost everyone owned up to some problems.  Some freely volunteered that they were struggling with courses and were concerned about grades.  Many were questioning whether they had made the best use of their time.  One told me, privately, that joining a social organization was a mistake, yet the student felt pressured to continue after investing so much money.  Many of my young people were scratching their heads about majors, and some admitted to having had more confidence than talent at the start.

 

But none of them expressed regret about coming to Wofford.  And none of them whined and wished to start over.  None of them were hanging their heads in shame, or trying to shift the blame for a bad semester onto roommates, friends, or professors.  They took pride in their accomplishments but they also took responsibility for their mistakes.

 

I’ve been at Wofford since the fall of 1991, and I hold that the hardest semester of college is the first one.  I’m not worried about my fifteen members of the Class of 2016.  Certainly things could change, the unexpected could happen, and they might not all graduate together.  But at this moment I think they are all capable of great things and already understand that the hardest lessons are the most personal, the ones that require enormous self-reflection.

 

This is more than I can say for a certain unnamed young man at Florida State University, who can only tweet and moan.

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It Takes Courage To Be A History Major

December12

Today a young woman came to my office and said, “I’ve had a revelation.  I hate Biology.  Sure, I’ve always made good grades in it and I know doctors make a lot of money but I HATE studying it and I don’t want to be a doctor.  I love history and my government classes and I think I want to major in those two subjects.  And you know what…NOW I’m happy.”  At that point she stopped, smiled, and added, “And I’ve told my mother and she didn’t have a flip-out about it.”

I normally wouldn’t write about this moment—as gratifying as it was for me personally—because often it might not be that big of a deal; students are born to change their minds!  College should be about self-discovery, what classes they love and loathe, what majors they wish to pursue and what classes they might choose to just ‘dabble’ in for personal satisfaction.  But over this last semester we in the History Department have been hearing some very disturbing things.  Primarily, we keep hearing “Yeah, but there’s nothing you can do with a history major, so it would just be a waste of money.”

This isn’t true.  There are many jobs for which a history major provides excellent preparation.  Everyone thinks of teaching, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.  History is by far the best discipline to prepare a student for law school, or for graduate work in history or even in another area of the humanities.  It is a solid foundation for archival and library studies, museum work, and historic preservation.  Wofford history majors have gone on to be ministers, social workers, NPR writers, book editors, and journalists.  We have graduates who are now nurses and medical professionals.  And one of Wofford’s most famous and most successful graduates, George Dean Johnson, was (you guessed it) a history major, who has honored the late Professor Lewis P. Jones for his great example and scholarship.

So many people think history is about ‘memorizing dates’ or ‘knowing all the kings of England in order.’  It’s about ‘boring stories’ and ‘dry facts.’  Clearly, someone hasn’t been paying attention in class!  True, there are lots of names and dates and stories, but history is more—it’s a discipline, a way of thinking, a skill set of reading, analyzing, and interpreting data.  A historians is part detective, part artist, and all humanist.  Our job is to study mankind, in his savagery and civilization, his glory and his shame.  Are we just trying to cobble up enough facts to keep us from repeating the past?  Of course not!  But what we are doing—to borrow a favorite phrase from my favorite biologist—is cartography.  We are mapping the human experience.  It won’t tell us the future, but it will allow us to make connections and comparisons, to recognize trends and scout out new pathways.  It will warn us of dangers and challenge us to scale heights.  And how amazing is it that the map will never be finished, and we’ll be arguing and struggling over its exact shape, pitting our wits and our resources against time itself for as long as mankind endures?

Fine, parents grouse, but how’s all that going to pay back my $100,000 investment in my kid?

And this is where the courage comes in.  No one can predict the exact course of the economy over the next five, ten, or twenty years.  No person can say with certainty that any one major will lead to a job that will make a person wealthy.  When I was in school in the 1980s, it was all about the business degree.  Those of us who weren’t FSU SOB’s (School of Business) were mocked to high heaven.  Now many of those people are unemployed.  Their certainty in 1985 didn’t translate to vast wealth or lifetime employment; no person can be sure that what they choose to do as a 21 year old will be what they’re doing when they retire, or that they will always be financially successful.  Life, after all, is a mixture of personal ambition, lucky breaks, bad breaks, and unexpected journeys.

What is more predictable is happiness.  As students grow, they find what subject makes them happy.  They discover disciplines that engage them and light a fire within.  Thus my young woman glowed when she said ‘now I know.’  She admitted that her friends were aghast—how dare she turn aside from the Biology pathway, what was she thinking to give up on med school?  “There’s so much pressure here,” she told me, “everyone expects you to be a Biology major if you’re paying for Wofford.”  But that’s a distorted view of what Wofford is about and what a liberal arts education is about.  We aren’t the end of the path, we’re the start.  Almost every profession in the modern world requires training or further study; the best thing we at Wofford can provide is an intellectual foundation that is rich and varied and therefore so much stronger than any other bedrock on which to build a future.

The world will tell students otherwise.  The world in general—and many parents who are very loving and well-meaning—will insist that this degree or that degree is better or is a guaranteed path to success.  But it isn’t.  Nothing is given to us but this day.

It takes courage to study one’s own heart.  It takes a leap of faith to unroll the great map of history and start drawing in the sea monsters and the unseen isles, knowing that one day you will launch a vessel and head in their direction. It takes incredible courage to be a History Major.  Or a Biology Major.  Or a Religion, Physics, English, Psychology, Foreign Language, or Sociology Major.  It takes guts to be an educated person in a world that prefers ignorance, shallowness, and greed.

One thing I can say for Wofford students—they may be struggling, they may be sorting things out, they may be arguing with parents and friends and professors as they look to their futures.  Sometimes they say really silly things (like ‘no jobs for history majors’!) but usually they wise up as they move through their years at Wofford, getting smarter in so many ways.

For Terriers do not lack courage.

Looking For The History Of Their History

September3

Today is the first day of classes.  It’s a bit frightening to think that I’ve been having first day of classes at Wofford since before our freshmen were born!  But every semester I try to think of some way to use this first day (which I keep lecture-free because they are stressed out enough already) to gain some insight into the mental world of my students.  I’m curious as to their attitudes about history.  Is it their favorite subject?  Their least favorite subject?  Have they generally had good instructors or wretched ones?  Do they think history is a subject for “old people” or something with relevance to their daily lives?  Would they even be in my class if not for the need to meet a general education requirement?

 

To try to learn the answers to these questions, I passed out three by five note cards and asked each student to write a short paragraph about his or her ‘historical’ experience.  The students did this anonymously, and I will throw the cards away so that I won’t recognize anyone’s handwriting later.  I asked for honesty and I think I got it!  Some students clearly enjoy history.  A few wrote about meaningful experiences touring museums and battlefields with their parents.  (Fathers tend to be more likely to be ‘history buffs’)  There was much praise for AP teachers, and even some good words for the inevitable ‘Coach’ who also teaches history.  That made me happy.

 

But of course there were plenty of students who were frank is their distain for history.  Several students bemoaned having to learn “facts,” “dates,” and “names.”  (I’d like to know how one could study history without encountering any of those!)  My favorite reaction was this one—“I think I have a condition that keeps me from learning history.”

 

While I’ll confess to a bit of sighing and head shaking, I’m glad that my students trust me enough to tell me that they’re not happy to have my class.  I’d be the most naive professor on the planet if I really expected everyone in a western civilization course to love (or even like) history.  It is more of a challenge to reach out to the skeptical, to try to find ways to engage students who are dubious of history’s merit.  Teaching HIS 100/101/102 is the hardest part of our job, but it can be the most rewarding as well.

 

And who knows, maybe if I’m really dedicated and really, really, REALLY lucky, I can help a young person be “cured” of the “I hate history” disease.

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To My Friends With Freshmen

August20

I knew this day was coming and now it has arrived.  Glancing at my Facebook, I see that many of my friends from high school and college now have children who are college freshmen.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve read statements like ‘taking Johnny to orientation’ or ‘setting up Susie’s dorm room.’  It used to be that when I looked out at parents of freshmen, I felt like a young whippersnapper and worried that these parents wouldn’t trust me as an academic advisor or a professor.  But now the parents and I are of the same age.  We meet eye to eye.

 

I don’t have children, but I have been a part of the lives of college students for over two decades.  I’ve taught at FSU, at Georgia Southern, and since 1991, at Wofford College.  I present this list of credentials because there are some things I’d like to say to the parents in my generation.

 

Seriously, can we talk?  Because as someone who sees things from the ‘other end,’ so to speak, there are some things I would like to say to you.

 

First of all, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.  You’ve guided your young person through childhood and the teenage years.  Getting into college is no easy feat, as you know from the long hours you spent helping with application forms and essays.  Your kid has walked across the high school graduation platform and taken the college entrance tests.  He or she is ready to go forward, and you’re the biggest reason why this very special young person has succeeded and shows such promise for the future.  Good for you.  And, quite frankly, it WAS a harder job than it was for our parents!  You had to contend with the bad influences of cable TV, the internet, cell phones, etc., etc.  The worst our parents had to worry about was a random dirty word on television!  You’ve navigated the shark-infested waters of drugs, sex, violence and general 21st century ickiness; I admire you for all you’ve done, and deep inside, I bet your child does too.

 

Now here comes the hardest part.  Go home and live your own life.  Be just like those commercials where the college student is worrying about her parents while, in actuality, they’re at a rock concert or surfing at the beach.  Your life is not ‘over’ when your kid goes to school.  It is just starting, at a whole new level.  Make your kids jealous of all the fun you’re having.  Haven’t you heard that living well is the best revenge? (Especially for those nights your kid violated curfew, dated a punk rocker, or brought home bad grades).

 

It is important to have your own life because it is time to let them have theirs.  As much as I am grateful for cell phones now, I’m glad I didn’t have one in college.  I was a late bloomer who really needed to learn how to handle things on her own.  If I’d had access to text messaging, I would have been even slower, far more willing to contact my mother and let her make the decisions.  Looking back, I think the ‘don’t call home collect unless it is an emergency’ rule was a positive thing for me.  It is most likely the rule you lived by as well, my late 40s, early 50-something friends.  Why not go a little old school and bring it back?

 

And I know you only want the best for your kid.  I appreciate that you want to give them the things that you didn’t have—a flat screen TV, a great computer, a Lily Pulitzer bed set—because you are good parents and you love your children.  But before you make that purchase, ask yourself a question: what does this say abut my expectations?  Is this what college is really about?  Don’t I look back and think about lessons I learned from not having everything I wanted in college?  Maybe you didn’t have the million dollar meal plan, so you learned how to cook on a budget and in a single pan, a skill that has served you well.  Maybe you didn’t have the newest, most fashionable clothes, so you learned to cultivate a style that was more about your personality than what you wore.  Maybe without a TV in your room you went to the dorm lounge often, had lively conversations and met more people than you would have if you’d been holed up in your cubicle with your big-screen TV and your video game console.  Maybe without a lot of distractions you actually got some sleep (which is something all freshmen need, no matter how much they deny it!).  For pity sake, say ‘no’ to something, if for no other reason than every kid needs something to bellyache about in later years!  Contrary to what your young person says, life will go on for him/her if you say ‘no’ to  joining a Greek organization in the first semester or refuse to finance a Fall Break trip.  Say no at least once.  A sense of entitlement has been the most unattractive quality of this generation of college students; please do your part toward making a change in that.

 

I’m not asking you to be a tyrant, or to be a miser, or to abandon your child.  But as someone who sees your young person every day, who watches your son or daughter grow, after 20 plus years of doing this I can tell you what your young person needs the most is not a toy or a trendy outfit or a big allowance so he/she can go Greek.  What he/she needs is your love and your willingness to let your young person blaze a distinctive trail.  This person isn’t a child anymore; even if you still feel like a kid (go you!) he/she doesn’t.  While this son or daughter may not be ready for true economic or emotional independence,  he or she is ready to start becoming an individual.  She doesn’t need to hear ‘you have to be a doctor’ or ‘don’t study history, there’s no money in it.’   Nor does he need to hear ‘I expect you to be the same straight A student you were in high school.’  The best words you can say are “I want you to learn and I want you to have a good life.  I’m here when you need me, but I’m not going to be here every moment.  This is your time now and I want you to make the most of it.  It’s going to be a great adventure.”

 

And then say the hardest word of all.  Say goodbye.  Not farewell, just goodbye.

 

And maybe pour yourself a drink or go catch a show.  You’ve earned it.

 

 

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A Review of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

June22

All presidents have their secrets.  But what if the greatest president in our history, Abraham Lincoln, was hiding the most important secret of all time?  What if Lincoln was fighting not just to save the Union and eradicate slavery, but also to destroy America’s most savage enemy: vampires!?

 

Such is the rather silly premise of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Based on the best selling novel (which I will state, for the record, that I have not read), this potential summer blockbuster turns Lincoln—already more of a myth than a man in the American imagination—into an even greater hero by recasting him as an ax-wielding avenger of humanity.  Several of my friends have asked me to do a review of the film from the point of view of an American historian of the nineteenth century, and so I’ll sink my teeth into it.

 

Let me begin with the most obvious point—you can’t expect much historical accuracy from a movie with a central premise that vampires are real!  It just doesn’t work that way.  The only way to take a film like this is to NOT expect things to be ‘historically correct.’  Otherwise, you’ll spend your entire time in the theater going “WHAT?  HUH?  NO WAY!”  When I realized that I was getting so worked up over the legion of historical liberties, I concluded that the way to enjoy such a crazy movie is to fall for its ridiculous premise hook, line and sinker.  That being said, I would have appreciated some more logic in places.  Just because I can accept vampires in Confederate uniforms doesn’t mean I can accept a train that can defy the laws of physics.  I mean, really.  Come on.

 

Oddly enough, I found myself liking the movie.  It had humor in places, pathos in others, and at its core a message that the worst way to be enslaved is to be snared by our own evil, selfishness, racism, and inhumanity.  In an odd way, the film was a valentine to Lincoln; you certainly couldn’t accuse it of being disrespectful to him, despite possessing enough historical inaccuracies and continuity lapses to fill up Ford’s Theatre.  I feel certain the writer chose Lincoln as his hero (instead of George Washington, Zombie Executioner or Calvin Coolidge, Mummy Slayer) because Lincoln is the president we love the most.  Even the laziest student knows that Lincoln struggled to rise from poverty, overcame hardship, and devoted his life to a cause beyond himself.  He’s the person that, deep inside, we all want to be in our very best moments.  Therefore, there’s something oddly reassuring about Lincoln’s righteous bloodsucker slaying, especially after actor Benjamin Walker assumes the oh-so-familiar visage of Father Abraham.

 

Is this a great film?  No—I doubt anyone will call it a classic now or in years to come.  Technically it isn’t spectacular (I kept wondering if it had been shot in Instagram) but the acting is acceptable (I especially liked Rufus Sewell as the chief villain).  I could go on and on about things that bugged me (How could a woman walk around in pants in the 1850s and nobody notice?  Hey, Lincoln had more kids!  Wasn’t Mary Todd a lot crazier?) but that would be missing the point.  And I’m not at all worried that little kids are going to start believing Lincoln killed vampires.  They’re smarter than that.

 

Ultimately, I don’t mind having a little fun with history as long as the heart of the ‘mash-up’ is in the right place.  Americans have been making up myths about Lincoln ever since he took the political stage.  Lincoln had a wonderful sense of humor, he loved a tall tale and a good joke.  I think he might have gotten a chuckle out of this movie, which is the most we should expect from a film with a pretty good message buried in layers of historical wackiness, oppressive CGI, and fairly amazing ax-twirling.

 

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