Stewart School Dedication

Although it has been quite some time since I have posted on this blog, I have not been idle.  Among other things, I have moved, started a new job, defended my dissertation, and graduated!  Over the Fourth of July weekend, I also had the honor of participating in the dedication ceremony for Stewart School, the subject of this post.

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I have written elsewhere (here and here) about Stewart School, a project of Stow Historical Society.  SHS raised the funds to move the building to Heritage Reserve Park at Silver Springs Park in Stow, Ohio and to restore it.  I wrote a Ohio Humanities grant for the production of interpretive panels and spearheaded their creation.  These panels tell the story of Stewart School specifically and nineteenth-century one-room schools more broadly.

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The schoolhouse dedication ceremony took place July 2, 2017, five and a half years after the first phone call to see if Stow Historical Society wanted the schoolhouse.  I was honored to be asked to participate as a speaker during the festivities.  Fortunately, the weather was beautiful, if very sunny, and we gathered in front of the schoolhouse for a brief ceremony to celebrate the work of Stow Historical Society and countless donors and volunteers, whose efforts made the restoration possible.  Inside the schoolhouse, I enjoyed seeing a finished interior (it had not been finished at all the last time I saw it), and it was especially gratifying to see the interpretive panels on which I had worked permanently mounted on the walls.  It was also wonderful to see many people taking the time to read them!

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Final Installation of Stewart School Interpretive Panels

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Stewart School Teacher’s Platform

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Examples of Student Desks

The restoration and interpretation of Stewart School is not completely finished (is it ever, for any historic building?), but now it is ready to be opened to the public for their enjoyment and edification.  I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of this community history project!

Thoughts about Moving “Beyond the Professoriate”

I recently “attended” an online conference called Beyond the Professoriate, hosted by Jen Polk (From PhD to Life) and Maren Wood (Lilli Research Group).  The conference’s ten panels featured 24 PhDs who do not have traditional tenure-track academic jobs.  I found the conference incredibly encouraging for a variety of reasons.  I obtained a good deal of practical knowledge about leveraging my skills and experience to put myself in an advantageous position on the non-academic job market, and I also realized that there are many out there like me, thinking of pursuing a career outside of academia.

As many of those paying attention to such things have been noting recently, the gap between new PhDs in History and available tenure-track jobs in History is pretty much as large as it has ever been.

New history PhDs versus advertised job openings

Image appears in Robert B. Townsend and Julia Brookins, “The Troubled Academic Job Market in History,” Perspectives on History (February 2016)

So, regardless of one’s personal inclinations, it makes sense for History PhDs to think about the possibilities of jobs other than those of the traditional tenure track.  My own inclinations also lead me away from traditional academia.  Although I love to teach, I do not truly enjoy research solely for its own sake.  Given the current structure of the academic job market, it seems to me that the only option for me to teach without intense pressure to research and publish article after book after article would be adjuncting – a system which has rightly been gaining a great deal of attention recently for the deplorable degree of exploitation to which universities subject adjunct instructors.  There have been many recent articles addressing this; some personal and powerful anecdotes appear here.

I love to share history with others – specifically, non-historians.  This is why I love teaching, and also why I love public history and working in museums.  I also love doing research when its goal is a product that I can share with the public.  I have thus worked extensively in the field of history outside of academia.  Yet, even with my public history background, making the leap out of academia after so many years working on my PhD seems terribly daunting – hence why I found Beyond the Professoriate so encouraging.

I took about 20 pages of typed notes from the conference, and it would be impossible to concisely synthesize all I learned in a brief blog post like this.  But one main idea stood out to me when I first heard it and has continued to stick with me.  First, the presenters (especially Chris Humphrey and Melissa Dalgleish) emphasized that I (and all of you PhDs and doctoral candidates out there) do have skills.  We have been gaining more skills throughout the whole process of working on our degrees.  Leveraging those skills is a matter of recognizing them AND learning to speak the language of potential employers in order to articulate them effectively.  Academics value a person’s accomplishments in terms of degrees, publications, conference presentation, honors and fellowships, etc. while non-academics value skills – it’s as simple as that.  I realize that it will take some work to jettison academic-speak and value (even to recognize in the first place) the skills I have obtained throughout my degree program, but I am determined to do just that and not to limit myself to a narrow conception of what I can do with my degree.  I feel much more prepared now for any and all job opportunities that might come my way!

Stewart School Public History Project Panels

Last October, I posted about a project I had been working on with my hometown historical society.  I wrote a grant to Ohio Humanities for six panels that would interpret the history of Stewart School, a late nineteenth-century one-room school from Stow, Ohio, recently saved and now in the process of restoration.  I wrote the text and acquired the images for the panels, with the help of local historians Marilyn Lown and Beth Daugherty, and worked with a graphic designer on their design.  They were displayed temporarily in the schoolhouse during the October Harvest Festival and will be installed on a more permanent basis once the restoration of the school house is complete.  But I am excited that they are available to view on Stow Historical Society’s website, here, in the meantime!

Musings on Mercy Street, Part Two

Now that I have seen the entirety of the first season of Mercy Street, I thought I should update my musings on the first few episodes.  Although I enjoyed the conclusion of the season, I agree with this reviewer that the plot to assassinate Lincoln was “unnecessary” and “a distraction,” not to mention grossly historically inaccurate.  The incorporation of John Wilkes Booth as a conspirator came across as especially gratuitous.  Why do so many Civil War movies and TV shows feel that they have to include Lincoln and Booth as characters?  Obviously, they are important in telling the story of the Civil War, but Booth, at least, is rather cliché at this point, unless the film deals with the actual assassination of Lincoln in 1865.  The non-famous characters of Mercy Street  carry the show quite well on their own, and their struggles, temptations, and trials provide ample compelling material for the viewer.

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The staff of Mansion House Hospital in Episode 6 of Mercy Street (Source: http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/about/episodes/episode-6-diabolical-plot/)

In Episode 5, a number of simmering conflicts erupt into full-blown antagonism, including that between free African American Samuel Diggs and the hospital steward and that between Confederate-sympathizing James Green and the Union officers who have been doggedly insisting that he sign a loyalty oath.  In Episode 6, tensions rise as the hospital prepares for Lincoln’s visit.  The story line involving formerly enslaved Aurelia Johnson reaches some degree of resolution.  The relationship between a pair of lovers is strained, and new flickers of romance appear.  Although the plot to assassinate Lincoln is the heavy dramatic focus of the episode, I was pleased that the episode ended with a scene incorporating the kind of character-driven drama that Mercy Street does best – a poignant, quiet incident playing out at a lone soldier’s hospital bed.

The season finale of Mercy Street set the show up for some very interesting developments in the next season, which I hope we will see produced.

Musings on Mercy Street, Part One

As a historian of early America, I looked forward eagerly to the premiere of PBS’s Civil War drama Mercy Street.  Now, four episodes in, I am looking forward eagerly to the final two episodes in the season. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the show, as a historian and as a fan of PBS period dramas.

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Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) talks to Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor) in Episode 1 of Mercy Street. (Source: http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/extras/photos/)

Mercy Street takes place in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia in 1862.  The action centers on Mansion House, a Union hospital and the former hotel of the Confederate-sympathizing Green family.  New arrival Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) courageously works to adjust to her new position as Head Nurse amidst jealousy and opposition.  Doctor Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor) tries to implement innovative medical techniques to save the soldiers under his care as he suffers a debilitating addiction.  Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant), a former slave and laundress at Mansion House, longs for true freedom as she experiences with the unwanted attentions of the hospital steward.  Emma Green (Hannah James), previously a somewhat spoiled southern belle, matures as she nurses Confederate soldiers at Mansion House, including her deeply troubled friend, Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan).  There are quite a few additional twists and turns in the plot, but I want to avoid spoilers.

Mercy Street is a period drama with very  modern sensibilities and themes, most notably addiction and PTSD.  I have to commend the writers of the show for dealing with these issues, which without question existed during the Civil War, but are often ignored.  Both Josh Radnor as Dr. Foster and Cameron Monaghan as Tom Fairfax give outstanding performances as individuals struggling with these silent nemeses.

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The hospital chaplain talks to troubled Confederate soldier Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan) in Episode 2 of Mercy Street. (Source: http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/extras/photos/)

Mercy Street‘s portrayal of Civil War medicine seems very realistic to me.  Apparently, a doctor and historian of Civil War medicine taught the actors Civil War-era medical techniques, which they practiced extensively before filming.  In one scene, Dr. Foster, Nurse Phinney, and Emma Green amputate a soldier’s leg.  Such a scene is something of a mainstay in films on the Civil War, but, during this scene, I felt like I was seeing the situation for the first time, given the attention that the filmmakers and actors played to actual Civil War-era amputation techniques.  The scene was also incredibly emotionally wrenching.

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Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant) tries to convince an enslaved boy to run away from his mistress in Episode 3 of Mercy Street. (Source: http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/extras/photos/)

The show also does an excellent job of portraying the complicated and uncertain status of African Americans in a formerly Confederate city occupied by the Union early in the war.  After the war began, it took over a year for the policy of the Union army to be formally clarified in the Confiscation Act of 1862, which freed slaves belonging to Confederates in Union-occupied areas.  Yet, the law was not always enforced, and, if they wanted freedom, enslaved African Americans often had to seize it for themselves, as depicted accurately in Mercy Street.  In addition, even after they became free, former slaves still experienced discrimination and abuse, portrayed heartbreakingly through the experiences of Aurelia Johnson in the show.

As a historian and as a fan of period dramas, I would highly recommend Mercy Street.  Each episode expertly evoked the historical situations that I have so often read about in scholarly works on the Civil War, while also communicating the human experiences of anguish and triumph that accompanied them.

An Excursion to Biltmore

Last weekend, we took a long-awaited trip to Asheville in order to visit Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s mansion and estate in the heart of the western North Carolina mountains.  I had been anticipating a trip to Biltmore for years, and I had heard a lot about it beforehand.  I also love historic house museums, and Biltmore seemed like it ought to be the grandfather of all historic house museums.  So, needless to say, I was very excited to finally see it.  In this post, I will share my thoughts about Biltmore from the perspectives of both a museum professional and a tourist.

Although we planned to visit Biltmore during the day, we realized too late that the group tickets through Mike’s work that we had purchased would not allow us to make reservations for the house, and house tours sold out on Saturday.  Tickets were still available for the evening Candlelight Tour though (house tour starting at 10 pm!), so we opted for that (we really wanted to see Biltmore!).  There are no two ways about it – Biltmore tickets are exorbitantly expensive.  They are priced in the range of theme park tickets, not tickets for a museum, which I could not reconcile in my mind until I visited and better understood what appear to be Biltmore’s priorities (more on those later).

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View of Biltmore just before dusk from the Italian Garden

We arrived for the Candlelight Tour before dark so we would have a chance to see the exterior of the house and grounds in daylight.  No doubt about it, Biltmore itself is impressive, and its setting is just gorgeous.  It was very cool to see the sun set behind the house.  After dark, we had dinner at the Library Lounge at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, which was delicious, elegant, and much less expensive than the other table service options on the estate.

Then we spent a couple of hours walking around Antler Hill Village.  Somehow, I had gotten the impression that Antler Hill Village, which is about five miles away from the main house, was a recreation of the gathering places of the community that lived on the estate.  I was hoping to learn a lot about the tenants and servants who worked for Vanderbilt.  But, alas, Antler Hill Village is made up of modern shops, restaurants, and the Biltmore winery.  Most of the structures, with the exception of the winery which is housed in an old dairy barn, are not historic. It felt much more like a theme park recreation of a village than a real historic village; the latter may not have been the intention of the designers anyway.

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Antler Hill Village at night (Because much of our time on the estate occurred after dark and we were not allowed to take pictures inside the main house or the exhibit, we only got a limited number of good photographs at Biltmore.)

There is a relatively small exhibit in one of the buildings at Antler Hill Village that discusses George and Edith Vanderbilt and their life on the estate.  Highlights of the exhibit include their family life at Biltmore, their travels, their charitable work in and around Asheville, and their decision not to sail on the Titanic at the last minute.  The exhibit is very well produced and has some fascinating artifacts, including several very rare ones from the Titanic. (Although the Vanderbilts sailed on another ship, one of their footmen sadly did sail on the Titanic and perished.)  Although I enjoyed the exhibit immensely, by this point in our visit, I sensed an absence of any kind of interpretation of the community that lived on the estate, except as they existed as objects of the Vanderbilts’ charitable efforts.  The exhibit ended with a film narrated by a Vanderbilt descendant who still lived on the estate grounds and, we later learned, worked for Biltmore.  The realization that Biltmore is still family-owned made the site’s interpretation make a little more sense; those who run the estate appear to be primarily interested in preserving the legacy of their ancestors, certainly an understandable and worthy goal.

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Biltmore at night

And it is quite a legacy.  After a quick break for coffee to fuel us for our night tour, we headed to the house and spent a little over an hour winding our way through Biltmore’s long halls.  The house was well-lit, and there were candles everywhere (they were artificial, but with very realistic flames).  In several locations in the house, musicians played or sang holiday carols, which created a great deal of warmth and ambiance.  I do wish that it had been less crowded because we felt at times as though we were being herded around, which rather detracted from the experience.  The house itself is just exquisite – opulent to the extreme.  And we did get to see the servants’ quarters and the working sections of the house, so we were able to get some sense of the lives of people who were not the Vanderbilts, although interpretation of their lives was still mostly absent.  Biltmore does offer an Upstairs-Downstairs tour, which might very well help to remedy this deficit.

If it had not been so late, we probably would have spent more time in the house, but after about an hour, we were ready to head back to our B&B.  The house is just a little overwhelming, and it is difficult to take in it all at once.  Our Candlelight Tour ticket allowed us to come back to the grounds the next day, which we did.  We walked some really lovely, and apparently little used, trails near the Bass Pond, where Mike rescued a heron which had gotten its foot caught in a wire fence (the most exciting part of our visit!).  Then we went to the barn and barnyard; I thought that here we would learn about the people who lived on the estate.  We did, to some degree, but it required us asking very specific questions of the interpreter in the barnyard.  A film was running in the barn which incorporated oral histories from tenants/servants, but the focus still seemed to be on what the Vanderbilts did for them (teaching trades, teaching literacy, etc.).  Edith Vanderbilt in particular appears to have done a great deal, and her efforts are an important part of the story of Biltmore, but I still would liked to have learned a little more about the people on their own terms.

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View of Biltmore from the Italian Garden

Overall, Biltmore felt more like a resort than a museum.  Although interpreting history clearly comprises an important part of its mission, I also sensed a great deal of institutional emphasis on providing a luxury getaway, an approximation of the vacations the Vanderbilts provided for the guests who stayed with them at Biltmore.  There is nothing wrong with this goal in itself, but at times it seems to work at cross purposes with preserving and interpreting the complex history of the estate.  But perhaps Biltmore would not have survived, splendidly intact, were it not for this shift towards amenities and hospitality, which may serve to draw more visitors.  Still, Biltmore ought not to underestimate guests’ ability and willingness to challenge their minds with the complex and sophisticated history of all of those who called the estate home.

Continued Thoughts on Best Practices for Teaching (Online or Otherwise)

Several months ago, I posted some preliminary thoughts on online teaching.  I’d like to add to that list now and also include some thoughts on teaching history in general that apply whether one is teaching online or in a traditional classroom.  Most of these thoughts have been gleaned from my experience acting as a discussion section leader for the online course of another professor (Dr. Tim Gregory) this semester.

1. Streamline online discussion.  I have found that there are a few simple ways to make online discussion less taxing for students and less taxing for the instructor as well.  There are few tasks more tedious than reading 45 nearly identical 200-word responses to the same question about a primary source.  One way is to give students a couple of freebies; in other words, they can miss a few weeks of discussion and still receive 100% for their discussion grade.  This might seem obvious, but I have realized that the first time I taught online, I was a bit too hard on my students for missing a week or two of discussion.  I’ve lightened up my requirements somewhat since then.  Also, another way to make online discussion much less time-consuming is to grade it as pass/fail.  In the past I have used an elaborate point system in which I assigned a certain number of points to each discussion post.  This system was just entirely too involved, and it did not really help students more than simply deeming their unacceptable posts unacceptable and explaining to them why and how they could improve.

2. Make students think independently.  Depending on how the instructor sets up online discussion in the platform I use (Ohio State’s Carmen), students may or may not be able to see other students’ posts before they post themselves.  If they can, and they choose to post later in the week, they may have dozens of posts that they can essentially copy, without looking at the course readings at all.  Rather, only after they post once should they be allowed to view and respond to what other students have written.

3. Emphasize the historical method over the accumulation of facts. This applies to online and traditional classroom teaching.  I have known the importance of teaching the historical method since I first started teaching, but, this semester, it has stood out to me as even more important to teach this explicitly and to repeat it often.  Make it clear to students that we want them to read monographs not because we want them to know every little detail about the Salem witchcraft crisis, for example, but because we want them to understand how historians do their work and learn how to evaluate arguments and the use of evidence.  We want them to read primary sources not because we want them to memorize every deed of Caesar Augustus listed in the Res Gestae, but rather because we want them to learn to evaluate the context and reliability of primary sources and how to use them properly.  It is the development of these critical thinking skills, not the accumulation of historical facts, that will serve them well later on in life, no matter what field they should choose.  This is clearly not a new or original thought on my part, but I think it bears repeating because some of those outside of the field of history (with exceptions, certainly) sometimes have trouble understanding that this is history’s utility for students.  It fosters the development of skills that are useful in life, not just the acquisition of facts!

I’ll be teaching my own online class again in the spring, and I am looking forward to implementing some of these ideas then.