Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Please Allow Me to Introduce You...

...to my brain.

Have you ever wondered what a graduate student of American history thinks about when she's sleeping?  Well, you're in luck! These are the words that circulate in my head day and night--consciously and unconsciously....the never-ending madness of thinking.  Sadly, you won't find any references to Derek Hough's dancing ability.  It's a shame. That Derek sure knows how to shake it!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Shake It Out

Sometimes music happens to you at the exact moment you need it most.  Florence + the Machine happened this week.  And it was good.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ladies & the "Common Fame"

The Feminization of Gossip in 17th Century Virginia by Joanna

"Brabling Women": women who just wouldn't keep their mouths shut...no matter what.
It's no secret that gossiping women are annoying, especially when they're gossiping about you.  They spread evil rumors about your scandalous behavior and tragically destroy any hope of Mr. Darcy asking for your hand in marriage.  But sometimes gossip can be a good thing, right? My dad says that gossip is the way society learns to regulate itself.  I believe this is true, not only because I loooove me some good gossip and I want society to learn that chomping on chips in public spaces is disgusting, but also because it's historically accurate! Without the regulating force of gossip, women in colonial America would have just gone around having babies with whoever the heck they wanted; they would have cursed the authority and overthrown the government; and they definitely would have found ways to cheat the system and inherit their dead husband's property. And that would have been bad for everyone (i.e. men).  Enter: women who rat out other women for the sake of social harmony (i.e. status quo patriarchal power).

In "olden times"America (ca. 1650s), gossiping women acted as the "mouthpieces of their community"; they testified in court, reported crimes of hanky panky, and pretty much ruled the streets with the venom of their words. Badass.  In a male-dominated world, gossip was the best opportunity for women to make themselves useful.  Having babies, scrubbing laundry, churning butter, and hoeing tobacco just wasn't going to cut it for these women. They needed some intellectual stimulation! So they chatted about social behaviors and decided what was--and what was not--appropriate for happy colonial living.  Interestingly, they too decided that chomping on chips in public spaces is disgusting.  

By 1657, however, things were getting a bit out of control and women were saying some crazy shit. We're talking serious slander, here. I mean, women weren't just ratting out other women, they were pointing fingers at men and the Governor himself!  One woman even accused her husband of "abusive and harsh carriages" toward her, "in speciall his sequestration of himself from the marriage bed." For shame! (This was, of course, her excuse for shackin' up with another married man...but that's besides the point.)  The equation worked like this:  women gossiping about other women=helpful advice/truthful testimony; women gossiping about men=slander/criminal offense.  At this time, female-perpetrated slander outnumbered male slander by nearly three to one. Way to go, ladies!  Naturally, "the Man" had had enough.  He was through being financially liable for his unruly wife's scandalous speech offenses. "I will not go broke over this nasty wench of wife any longer!" man screamed.  And the courts answered.  In lieu of paying fines, the law declared, you may now elect to have your wife "ducked." 

Think tortuous dunk tank.
Note: This is not the most effective way to extract an apology from your wife.  I mean, I don't really know; I'm not married and I don't know what it's like to be blamed for your spouse's bad behavior, but this is just ridiculous.
Despite this horrendous punishment, women would not be stopped! They kept right on accusing the neighbor of sneaking into their bedrooms and doing naughty things under the sheets.  Silly, intransigent women. 

Long story short, women kept saying weird things and men kept screaming, "shut up, you brabling woman, you're making us look bad!" So, the courts continued to prosecute female speech, conflating gossip with slander, and slander with women.  

Which is why, to this day, real men don't gossip; they "talk."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rounding Second

I think I can, I think I can...Chugga chugga chugga chugga.

My second year of grad school has commenced. One more year to go: 14 more weeks of coursework,  32 more weeks of reading (or maybe 48 weeks...who can say?), exams, and then...dunzo. It seems so easy. So achievable. So close. And yet, it seems impossible and SO. FAR. AWAY.  They tell me, "Joanna, you're so close; you can see the light at the end of the tunnel!" And I say, "the hell I can!" Maybe that "light" is around the next turn, somewhere between December and February.  But right now: no light.

This is what the light will look like when I can see it, which will be never.
So, in an effort to relieve this seemingly endless agony of rounding another base, I'm taking account of the lighter side of this oh-so lightless tunnel.* As it turns out, to my surprise, some things in history can be relatively easy and agony-free. Forget the complication of method, analysis, and bullshit high-minded theses; I choose easy. Rather than suffer through a year of grappling with historiography and stupid historical debates, I am choosing to settle in with some good-for-nothing stories of the highest caliber and the utmost truthiness.  Join me, won't you? I will educate the f--- out of you. (Beware: I use bad words.)

For tomorrow: The feminization of gossip in 17th century colonial Virginia. Get excited.

*I realize that mixed metaphors can cause some confusion. Am I playing baseball or am I a human train? Either way, the point is clear: second base sucks.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Defending My Craft: In Which I Explain, Why Grad School.

Even if you're not a big fan of history, you've probably heard of this guy:
  David McCullough

Given his remarkable achievements (ya gotta give props to anyone with a Presidential Medal of Freedom), McCullough deservedly qualifies as a senior-ranking member of the academic badass club.

You might have heard of these:

Truman inspired the HBO movie starring Lieutenant Dan as Truman, himself.  John Adams inspired the ill-cast (Giamatti and Laura Linney, really?), boring-as-hell, but nevertheless award-winning HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks. 1776 is currently in production with HBO and America's favorite historian, Tom Hanks.  The Greater Journey (coming out in May) will probably one day inspire an HBO series. A lot of people really like McCullough, especially the people at HBO.

McCullough is widely recognized as a trusted United States historian whose books stay in the bestseller charts for years.  John Adams, for instance, is so successful that it is one of the fastest-selling non-fiction books of all time. Additionally, McCullough's books are a staple feature on the Barnes & Noble selected history books table.  A pretty fine accomplishment, if you ask me.  But most importantly, he has the Tom Hanks seal of approval.

I've never read any of his books.  They're just too gosh-darn thick and heavy--much too cumbersome for me to hold whilst lounging in a sunken sofa balancing coffee and a cozy blanket. In other words, McCullough's books require a table, and who reads books at tables?  No, I prefer my history books with soft covers and less than 250 pages.  I also prefer my history books written by someone who has a degree in history.  Call me an elitist!  Having a degree of my own and working on my masters, I think, entitles me to be a bit picky.  At least for now.  Or maybe I'm just jealous of people who never had to slog through a history methods class to write a bestseller. But do keep this in mind: I really love the Kardashian sisters and I watch Dancing With the Stars every week.  So I can't possibly be an elitist.

In any case, it's easy to spot the glaring differences between a straight-up history book (written by boring history professors infatuated with excessive end-noting) and a history narrative (written by storytellers like Erik Larson, independently wealthy hobbyists like James Bradley, and excellent prose writers like McCullough). The most obvious difference being that one is way more fun to read the other...duh.  Storytellers get the glory (i.e. the movie treatment) because they're better able to articulate the juicy details of our interesting-as-hell national history.  I don't blame them; I envy them.  But while their books are easy to read and fascinating, they may not always be good history.  Popular history books like these tend to simplify, glorify, and sensationalize the details....sometimes to the effect that they reinforce our weird understanding of American exceptionalism and national identity.

"Good history," in my view, is complicated and ugly; it takes whatever simple understanding you may have learned in high school and explodes a bomb of nuanced, theoretical and argumentative perspectives in your face.  "Good history" makes you wonder whether or not the stories and the myths--the foundations of our national identity--are true, and it forces you to decide why/how it matters in today's politics.  Reading history, ultimately, is studying debate. So, I prefer to get my debate sources from the boring history professors and my TV/movie entertainment from the Tom Hanks History Network (aka HBO).  No offense, McCullough.

But back to my main point...because I'm sounding quite snobby.

McCullough knows the value of history and he communicates that well.  In his 2005 lecture "American History and America's Future," McCullough makes a wonderful point.  That is, history education is fundamental to being: a.) A better citizen; b.) A more "thoughtful and understanding human being;" and c.) A more behaved individual.  True enough.  But he also recognizes that history is as pleasurable as art, music, and literature. Just like these other more popular mediums, history "consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive." Yes, sir.
We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate.  And it's not their fault...We have to do several things.  First of all we have to get across the idea that we have to know who we were if we're to know who we are and where we're headed.  This is essential...History isn't just something that ought to be taught or ought to be read or ought to be encouraged because it's going to make us a better citizen.  It will make us a better citizen; or because it will make us a more thoughtful and understanding human being, which it will; or because it will cause us to behave better, which it will.  It should be taught for pleasure: The pleasure of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive, which is what education is largely about. 
I don't often wax poetic about my decision to study U.S. history at the graduate level.  My love of the past is not that interesting of a subject.  I could sum it up in two sentences.  Ready?  Two sentences:  I love the past because it explains to me why change moves in the direction that it does; it shows why movements/people/policies failed, succeeded, or perhaps never changed at all.  I love the past because it suggests a better alternative for the future, and directs the proper (and most reasonable) responses for the present.  Done.  There's not much more than that.

Talking about history is more problematic. I mean, not everyone wants to hear my tirade about President Wilson, the man who f---d us into being the paradox of international relations that we are today.  History doesn't make for good pub talk (at least, not in California), and clashing politics are guaranteed to ruffle some feathers and end happy friendships.  History is, like most interesting things, veiled in politics.  And politics are, as I've learned, a bit touchy and emotionally unstable.

Ultimately, my interest in history reminds me of playing volleyball.

Volleyball is a great sport--it's accessible, cheap, and everyone (even the most unskilled athlete) can play it at the beach; you just flop around in the sand, drink beer, and have a good time, making sure all the while that your swimsuit doesn't fall off.  But court volleyball is different.  You need knee pads, tiny spandex shorts (which are functional, by the way...they don't ride up or expose anything when you roll out from a dive), 4 refs, and a team of 6 players who all know the same hitting terms--"slide," "4," "one," "hut," "pipe"--and the court zones.  All six players have to be on the same page; they need to know where to guard and who to cover with each touch of the ball. The lingo and the shouting determine all of that.  Ever wonder why volleyball games are so loud?  Communicating plays are what makes a rally happen and what makes volleyball appear so choreographed and fun to watch (and play). If, however, the setter (much like a quarterback) is the only one who knows the terms, sets the hits, and guards the hitter, then the ball is most often on the floor.  Boring.

Well, sometimes I feel like a lonely setter.

I like to call hits, make plays, and rally back and forth (with or without a volleyball), but my subject doesn't always make that fun and easy.  History, after all, isn't as accessible as it should be.  Nor is it very popular to watch, play, or follow.  Click here for my case in point. Try out the first 8 questions; see how well you (and the "average" American) do.

Personal interests can be incredibly isolating, especially when your interest revolves around reading--the antithesis of social interaction.  I think that's why most historians choose to teach.  They don't want to feel like a lonely setter, setting up plays for invisible teammates.  They want to rally.  For those historians who like people, teaching is a must; it is the only way to make friends and recruit other players.  Poor, lonely historians.  In fact, it's not possible to be a professional historian without actively doing history; that is, researching and then sharing and arguing with people about the conclusions of that research (i.e. publishing books and articles, teaching the public, giving lectures, etc).  In other words, teaching is an essential component to doing history.  The reverse is also true: doing history is an essential component to being a history teacher.  As David McCullough says, a good history teacher knows (and therefore, studies and practices) history.
We have to do a better job of teaching our teachers...Knowing a subject is important because you want to know what you're talking about when you're teaching.  But beyond that, you can't love what you don't know.  And the great teachers - the teachers who influence you, who change your lives - almost always, I'm sure, are the teachers that love what they are teaching. 
Spoken like a true champ: like a man who's been awarded the highest civilian honor in the land.  Thank you, David McCullough, for pointing out that a solid education in history is vital not only to students (and all Americans), but to the teachers.  This is why, when it is all said and done, I'm working my ass off reading and writing papers 7 days a week; because I believe that history teachers should know what the hell they are talking about.

I'll never forget when my 10th grade world history teacher gave me a C on a quiz (one point off from a B) because I got this question wrong:  "Who did Hitler send to the concentration camps?" I answered: "Jews, gypsies, communists, etc."  She put a bold line through communists and marked "-1." What? She was wrong.  She made the mistake that so many Americans do: failing to distinguish the differences between socialism, communism, and Nazism. If only our history teachers could have explained this difference to us in high school!  Perhaps, then, our political environment would be a little less insane and Hitler mustaches a little less ubiquitous.

So there you have it: my reason for being (a grad student).