“Terrible Student Gets Ph.D.”

I was interested to read a post by my grad school colleague Donald Leech, at his blog Long Slow Run Through History. Don is now at UVA-Wise, and took a rather circuitous route to get there. If you were to speak with him, you would notice his English accent, but I did not know the rest of the story:

I scraped entry into college on my test scores… I went with a friend to the University of Arizona, 2,000 miles from home, and with no study habits whatsoever. I had a lot of fun that year. I failed almost all of my classes, and came home.

It’s a bit of blur for a few years after that. A semester at Eastern Michigan resulted in trips to the Wooden Nickel bar rather than to class. A year at Wayne State resulted on some passed classes and a lot of dropped classes.  Meanwhile, various jobs paid the bills while I lived in Detroit. I did get a certification as an Electronic Technician. This allowed me to work for a few years repairing equipment at gas stations. It paid pretty well.

Then I got married. First we focused on my wife finishing her degree. Then I went back to school at a good small liberal arts college (Madonna University). I graduated with honors while working 45-50 hours a week. Finally, I had done it!

I regret none of it. It had been my own story, my own adventures.

I have students now who struggle, who drop out, who fail. I understand that some of us take a more winding path. I wish I had known then that I wasn’t failing, really I was just better and happier not in school. I was living life in different ways. I hope I can help some of my students find the path they are to follow, to accept that path, and to make the most of it. For some it is finding the course of study they love and to pursue it – their parents may not like them taking History or Theatre, but it’s their love, their life. For others it may not yet be school. They may need to explore a different path. Even if it’s just for a while.

More at the link. I fully agree with the idea that just because you’re not good at school, doesn’t mean that you’re “failing.” Not everyone is cut out for college, and it would be great if more people realized this earlier in their careers, left and done something useful or at least properly compensated, and returned when older, wiser, and more motivated. My profession has an interest in encouraging as many people as possible to go to college (and to incur massive debts in the process), but I have never liked this scam aspect of American higher ed.

Liberal Arts for the Win!

From the Atlantic, as though it isn’t totally obvious:

American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program….

[B]usiness majors seem to be graduating with some of the technical skills they’ll need to secure jobs, but without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time.

A 2014 study of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test—administered to some 13,000 undergraduates as they entered and exited university—found that business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and engineering. The authors then adjusted their results to account for the academic abilities of students entering these majors—and found that business and education majors still showed substantially lower gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking by the time they’d graduated.

Read the whole thing.

Historians of Slavery

My friend Lynn Rainville is featured in the Chronicle (subscription required):

Historians of Slavery Find Fruitful Terrain: Their Own Institutions

JUNE 21, 2016

Crystal S. Rosson had spent years tracing her family roots — poring over courthouse documents, asking relatives to show her the unmarked graves of their ancestors, even quitting her job at a Virginia high school to devote more energy to her research. With every new picture and article she uncovered, one thought lingered in her mind: Where had her great-grandfather Sterling Jones lived? One day she found her answer. It was a well-kept cabin, once a farm-tool museum, now mostly vacant. And it sat only a stone’s throw from the back door of the mansion of the president of Sweet Briar College.

Ms. Rosson had chills. She lives just three miles down the road from Sweet Briar, and she says her family always felt a connection to the women’s college, but she never fully understood why. Since the first day she stood outside that cabin, she has learned more about that connection.

Her great-grandfather was a bricklayer; in fact, he was employed by the college to construct some of its first buildings after the former plantation became an institution of higher education. The cabin, she discovered, was also where Jones’s father probably lived as a slave.

A collection of news and commentary from The Chronicle can provide a starting point for discussion of what might be done to improve the climate and conditions on your own campus.

Ms. Rosson called administrators at the college to see if anyone knew anything about Jones. That’s when she met Lynn Rainville, a research professor in the humanities. Ms. Rainville is director of the Tusculum Institute, which she helped create in 2008 to research and preserve local history. For the previous 15 years, she had been doing just the opposite of Ms. Rosson — tracing Jones’s descendants to find out where they ended up.

“It was a fluke,” Ms. Rosson says of meeting Ms. Rainville. “We had long, crazy, amazing conversations that started us on this path together to piece my great-grandfather’s connection together to the college.” In 2014 the two researchers reopened the cabin with an exhibit to teach students and the public about the college’s historical ties to slavery.

The collaboration between Ms. Rosson and Ms. Rainville was accidental, sparked simply by their own curiosity. But the professor and the genealogist are by no means alone. As more institutions grapple with their own thorny histories, a growing number of scholars are digging into public history and raising questions about colleges and universities’ responsibility to acknowledge and explain those links to slavery and racism.

That represents a shift in scholarly thinking, says Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. “Scholars haven’t been deeply involved in micro-institutional history,” he says. “They see it generally as a bit of navel-gazing, but they think it’s great for students to do.”

More at the link (behind paywall, alas).

Helpful Hints for Conferences

1. Just because you have written a paper, does not mean that you have a presentation. Papers are meant to be read silently to yourself, and when you do so, you can go at your own pace, and reread sections that you might not have gotten the first time around. For a live performance, however, you need to overcome the fact that people can’t do this, so don’t just read your prose word for word quickly, in a monotone, and without ever looking up. (As someone said once: “We know you can read. So can we.”) At the same time, don’t simply give a “report” on what you are working on (“now, in this section I explore some of the implications…”). I am amazed at how many academics continue to do either of these things. No, if you give even a little effort, you can craft a genuine presentation, in which you actually engage the audience with your message, which should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. I am only too aware of the criticisms of PowerPoint, but it can be used effectively, and frankly it’s pretty much standard these days – why not show key points and a gratuitous illustration or two on principle? (Although there is a problem with this that I have not seen addressed elsewhere. If you are going to use PowerPoint, just make sure that when you insert your thumb drive, and open it, that you do not display to the entire room all your personal files. Empty the drive of anything but your talk, or make sure that the projection screen is off when you download it.)

2. If you are the session chair, here are a few things you can do to make things run properly:

  • State your name and affiliation clearly, and welcome the audience graciously
  • Clearly explain the theme of the panel and why it has a claim on people’s attention
  • Clearly introduce the panelists
  • Tell everyone to silence their cell phones 
  • Keep everyone within their allotted time
  • After the talks, mention how you enjoyed the papers, and if at all possible point out some commonalities (don’t just pop up and say “any questions?”)
  • Manage the questions gracefully

It helps if you have gotten all the papers beforehand, and read them, but this is not always possible.

3. If you are organizing a conference, why not consider reviving the medieval custom of the academic debate? Think of Johann Eck vs. Martin Luther in 1520, or Peter Abelard vs. William of Champeaux in the twelfth century. The fall of this form, I assume, has to do with the denigration of scholasticism and the dialectic mode of enquiry that it promoted; lately, we’ve all become “professional” as well – we’d never publicly contradict a colleague! But I think it could be a lot of fun if you actually got two people, each representing a different side of an issue, and let them go at it. It might even lead to greater clarity of thought.

I Went To See the Doctor of Philosophy

I have attained the degree of “Doctor of Philosophy,” but the meanings of both of those nouns have changed from when this degree was first granted. When it was, the words essentially meant “learned lover of knowledge,” but in everyday English the meaning of “doctor” has narrowed, from “learned in an academic field” to “practitioner of the health sciences”; “philosophy” is now a specific academic field studying “the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” (I have taken exactly one philosophy course in my career, and I didn’t enjoy it very much.)

Yet I still get to wear dark blue on my hood, the color of “philosophy” in the wider sense of the word. I’ve often thought that we need to end this practice: by rights I should have a doctorate of history, and wear a color devised for my particular discipline. But with so many already taken, this is probably unfeasible. (I suppose that I could wear white, the color of the humanities – or golden yellow, the color of social science.)

If there’s one thing I dislike, though, it’s when people who hold doctorates of education wear dark blue on their hoods, or on the velvet panels on their gowns. They should wear light blue, as the code, and common courtesy, dictate.

In a similar fashion, I don’t much care for being “Dr. Good.” This is not because I feel that I’m stepping on the toes of cardiologists or radiologists, but because it’s a historical fluke that my credential comes with a title. Sure, I’ll use it on the job, but not outside of that.

And Now, Some Sobering News…

From the AHA’s Perspectives newsletter. I would add another reason: when you love history as such, as all history professors do, you simply can’t understand why others might not, and it’s difficult to convince them of the subject’s value.

The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done?
by Julia Brookins, May 2016

As the March 2016 issue of Perspectives on History reported, the number of people earning a US bachelor’s degree in history dropped sharply in 2014 from a year earlier and may continue to fall over the next few years. We solicited reports and impressions from department chairs and talked to history faculty members at different types of colleges and universities, asking how things looked in their programs and what the implications for other history departments might be….

[Some reasons include:]

Gender breakdown of the undergraduate student population: Nationally, there are three male history majors for every two female history majors. Declining proportions of male college students will continue to affect program cohorts negatively unless more women choose history.

The history program’s reputation for rigor: This may be a factor in certain campus climates, but departments must think carefully about how prospective students encounter the expectations that their program has for its graduates. Rigor and lack of student success are not the same things. Departments may need to embrace changes that reinforce learning and be able to provide good evidence to entering students that the history program is structured to support their academic achievement.

Heavy reliance on required introductory courses to recruit students: Conventional wisdom among history faculty members has been that introductory courses are the best recruitment tool for attracting history majors. As college-going has undergone big changes over the past few decades, however, the students in the lower-division campus courses are a smaller pool to draw from. Today, more students who enter a bachelor’s degree program have previous course credits from community colleges, AP courses, dual or concurrent enrollment courses, and other sources. Departments that expand their recruitment beyond on-campus introductory courses may be able to find more of today’s college students. Direct communication and coordination between faculty peers at two-year and four-year academic units becomes more important to discovering and launching students who want to major in history.

Creation of new majors: As choices for students expand, history departments that actively engage with faculty colleagues in new and existing programs may be more likely to retain students. Facilitating double majors and developing or promoting a history minor goes along with this approach.

Changes to general education curricula: History faculty members and department chairs with whom I spoke agreed that changes to history’s place within general education have played a role in the number of undergraduate majors. Students can now often navigate the breadth of institutional offerings and choose among baskets of courses. While there are risks as designated distribution requirements disappear, there are also tremendous opportunities for more engaged classrooms and for moving introductory history courses beyond surveys of broad topical areas toward an emphasis on effectively training undergraduates in core concepts and competencies of historical thinking.

Declining career prospects in fields traditionally associated with history: Some states implemented hiring and/or salary freezes for K–12 teachers in the wake of budget crises precipitated by the recession. The past few years have also seen a significant constriction of early-career employment opportunities in the legal profession. If law school no longer seems like a good bet, the history curriculum that was great preparation for that path might lose its attraction for some students.3 Historians need to practice communicating that history skills are foundational for many career paths and be able to outline that range of occupations to undergraduates.

Regional demography: The number of traditional college-age or younger residents of certain metropolitan areas and entire states has fallen, while it has increased in other regions. Overall enrollments may be down at institutions in aging regions, and faculty may need to take different steps to reach students.

Dartmouth and Canada

Ron Good apprises me of an interesting article by Thomas Peace at Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History entitled “Dartmouth College and Canada: The Problem of National Historiographies.” As a Canadian and a Dartmouth alum, I was naturally curious – and pleased to see that Peace deals with Joseph Brant, UE (alias Thayendaneaga), the Mohawk chieftain who was educated at Moor’s Indian Charity School (the precursor to Dartmouth), who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, who relocated to Brantford, Upper Canada following the war – and who subsequently sent his own sons back across the border to be educated at Dartmouth. If ever I have enough money to donate a building to Dartmouth College (admittedly a highly unlikely possibility), I would name it Brant Hall, after Joseph and his sons, representative of the connections that have existed between Dartmouth and Canada from the beginning. Peace points out, however, that Brant was one of several such people, and that their cross-border existence has been obscured by the fact that historians tend to focus on writing either a history of Canada, or of the United States. I sure hope he makes more of this.

Asa Briggs, 1921-2016

From the BBC:

Historian Lord Asa Briggs dies, aged 94

Lord Asa Briggs, a leading historian and pioneer of adult education, has died at the age of 94.

He had an “extraordinary life” and died peacefully at home in Lewes, East Sussex, son-in-law Philip Preston said.

Lord Briggs worked at the Bletchley Park code-breaking station during World War Two, and later helped establish the Open University and Sussex University.

Sussex’s vice-chancellor, Prof Michael Farthing, called Lord Briggs a “visionary and a dear friend”.

Prof Farthing, who was with Lord Briggs and his family when he died, said he would “miss him terribly”.

“He had a huge breadth in his life and he contributed to an enormous number of different universities, different ideas to his discipline of history, and on a much wider scale to higher education in general,” he said.

Lord Briggs, who was born in Keighley, Yorkshire, and attended Cambridge University, received a call in 1943 to join British intelligence at Bletchley Park – the base from which Germany’s Enigma code was deciphered.

After the war he returned to his academic interests, becoming an expert in the Victorian period and writing several books during a career at universities including Oxford and Princeton.

His five volumes on the history of broadcasting in the UK was often described as the unofficial history of the BBC.

BBC director general Tony Hall said Lord Briggs’s “great gift to the BBC was the insightful and illuminating histories he wrote about the corporation, which set the highest bar for all media histories to follow”.

The vice-chancellor of the Open University, Peter Horrocks, said Lord Briggs was a “towering figure in education, influencing the development of new universities in Britain and abroad”.

Lord Briggs was made a life peer in 1976 and sat as a crossbencher.

Harvard Law

An update from a post of last year, from the New York Times: apparently Harvard Law School has voted to discontinue its coat of arms (n.b. not “crest”).

Harvard Law School is poised to abandon an 80-year-old shield based on the crest of a slaveholding family that helped endow the institution, as campuses across the country debate the use of historic names and symbols that some consider offensive.

On Friday, a law school committee said the shield did not represent Harvard values. It shows three sheaves of wheat, a symbol that is derived from the family crest of an 18th-century slave owner, Isaac Royall Jr., who endowed the first law professorship at Harvard, though the gift did not by itself create the law school. The image of the wheat appears under the word “Veritas,” or “Truth” in Latin, the Harvard motto.

One can only hope that the replacement will be just as heraldic as the discontinued one.

Eighteenth-Century Slavery

As readers may be aware, a number of activists at Harvard Law School have organized themselves into a group called “Royall Must Fall,” inspired by the successful “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign at the University of Cape Town, which was directed against a statue of that particular arch-imperialist. “Royall Must Fall” is not animated by any statues, but by the HLS coat of arms, which looks like this:


Via Wikipedia

What is wrong with this, you ask? The three sheaves of wheat are the coat of arms of Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719-81), whose bequest of land in 1779 served as the original endowment for HLS – and whose family wealth derived from the slave trade in Antigua, where his father had taken part in the brutal repression of a slave revolt in 1736. The offensiveness of these facts to our current sensibilities do not need to be spelled out. To underline their point, RMF members adopted their own coat of arms featuring black slaves carrying the sheaves of wheat:


From the Royall Must Fall Facebook page.

The HLS coat of arms, like those of most subunits of Harvard, dates from the university’s tercentennial in 1936. In that year, Pierre La Rose designed a heraldic system for the university: each school (medicine, law, public health, dentistry, etc.) got a coat of arms featuring the arms of its founder, differenced by the so-called “chief of Harvard” – a crimson horizontal band across the top, featuring three open books collectively bearing the Harvard motto “Veritas.”


Via Wikipedia, the arms of Harvard Divinity School, Kennedy School of Government, and Harvard Business School. For the meanings of these and other Harvard shields, see Mason Hammond’s multipart article “A Harvard Armory”, which appeared the Harvard Library Bulletin in the early 1980s.

It is important to note that Royall himself was not an agent of the slave trade (although he was a slave owner); furthermore, many historical figures have done great things in spite of their moral crimes, and we have no problem honoring them, while being cognizant of their shortcomings. But if Royall’s sins are judged to be too much, and to outweigh any good he did otherwise, it would be easy enough to find the coat of arms of someone else associated with the founding of HLS and change the HLS arms to be that, differenced by the chief of Harvard. (After all, the grant occurred in 1779, and HLS was only founded in 1817! Did Nathan Dane have a coat of arms? Joseph Story? John Ashmun? If so, it would be easy to substitute one of these shields for that of Royall. If not, it would also be easy to invent a coat of arms for HLS not referencing a person, but the law itself: a pair of crossed gavels, a gryphon, a balance, a book, etc.)

It’s not just the Ivy League that is sensitive to these issues. I discovered an article on Rantsports ranking all the helmets in the National Football League. This ranking was not done simply from a design perspective, but from a political one too. Thus, as you can probably imagine, the lowest-ranked helmet was that of the Washington Redskins. As the article says:

Whether you believe it should or should not, the Washington Redskins’ helmet sadly offends a portion of our country’s Native American population. Therefore, it lands at No. 32.

But then number 31 is the New Orleans Saints, for similar reasons.


From Amazon.com

What could possibly be wrong with this clean, simple design of a fleur-de-lis, referencing New Orleans’s French heritage? The article claims that:

many feel it is racist in nature due to its history (which you can look up and decide for yourself). It seems like a rebrand is needed at this point. Washington and New Orleans are tied for the worst in my humble opinion.

As a Canadian I am used to seeing the fleur-de-lis used by the government of Quebec, and as a medievalist I am used to seeing it associated with the medieval French monarchy. I had never heard that it is racist. And yet, a quick Google search brought up an article by one Ashley Rae Goldenberg from July, 2015:

Slave historian Ibrahima Seck explained to WWLTV the fleur-de-lis is part of slave history.

According to Seck, the fleur-de-lis was implemented as part of the Louisiana “black code,” which were the rules for the French slave populations throughout the world.

Seck stated, as a punishment for a slave running away, slaves “would be taken before a court and the sentence would be being branded on one shoulder and with the fleur de lis, and then they would crop their ears.”

“As an African I find it painful, and I think people whose ancestors were enslaved here may feel it even harder than I do as an African,” Seck continued.

I thought this sounded suspiciously like an urban legend, but Article 38 of the French Code Noir really did order the branding of a fleur-de-lis on the shoulders of runaway slaves, among other indignities.


But I confess I am not sympathetic to getting rid of the fleur-de-lis. Slavery was a cruel system, and the racism used to justify it is still with us in more than a few ways. This one historic use of the fleur-de-lis, however, is surely not enough to ruin its long and distinguished heraldic history. One cannot help but think that in this case, things really have Gone Too Far.