Thursday, December 1, 2016

Blog CCXIII (213): Life in Hell Again

The best parody has an element of truth in it. Here is another cartoon from Matt Groening's Life in Hell comic strip.  I never dropped out of grad school, but everything else has the ring of truth to it.

  Image result for types of college professors life in hell

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Blog CCXII (212): Writing in History

In previous posts--Blog XXII and Blog XXV--this blog has stressed the importance of writing well.  As I have argued, this skill is a factor--more indirect than direct, but significant nonetheless--in professional advancement. Rachel Toor, an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, tends to think the same way. She has a series that she publishes in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Scholars Talk Writing" in which she interviews a number of individuals from different academic disciplines. Only three of the individuals she has interviewed are historians, but I have included all of them because the issues they discuss are often not that different, in my opinion, from what a publishing historian encounters:
  • Carl Elliot: "In academic writing you’re given a lot of latitude to be boring."
  • Jennifer Crusie: "It’s an incredibly arrogant act to publish anything."
  • Steven Pinker: "Good prose requires dedication to the craft of writing, and our profession simply doesn’t reward it."
  • Jay Parini: "You have to write a lot to get better at writing," so "don’t stop."
  • Michael Bérubé: "I still have the standard anxiety of a struggling musician: Regardless of the gig, I want to be invited back."
  • Deirdre McClosky: "You know the standard is not high in economics. Whenever I get the slightest bit vain about my allegedly good writing, I open The New Yorker and weep."
  • James M. McPherson: "I learned how to write mainly by the trial and error of writing."
  • Laura Kipnis: "Writing for wider venues is actually a lot more challenging; at least that’s been my experience."
  • Camille Paglia: "I must stress that all of my important writing, including my books, has been done in longhand, in the old, predigital way. I absolutely must have physical, muscular contact with pen and page. Body rhythm is fundamental to my best work."
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: "You have to think about what you’ve written from the point of view of someone who isn’t you."
  • Sam Wineburg: "The two most important tools a writer has are his ears."
  • Anthony Grafton: "It’s a matter of establishing your voice on the page, in the first sentence, while hoping to win the reader’s attention and not put her off,"
HistoryNet, the on-line presence of a number of popular history magazines (American History, America's Civil War, Aviation History, Civil War Times, Military History, MHQ, Vietnam, Wild West, and World War II) has also been interviewing a number of historians, journalists, and biographers about their work.  These interviews published in the various print magazines that HistoryNet represents, focus on a number of issues, but all of them discuss the importance of writing as part of the interview:
  • T. J. Stiles: "I try to write the kind of book I like to read. I want to be transported to another place, to have the visceral pleasure of following a subject in peril, and to have those “aha” moments, when I come to see the world in a different way."
  • Nancy Plain: "Just try to tell a good story, and tell it, as much as possible, as if they are talking to a friend. Tell it simply and clearly, with colorful details and plenty of primary-source quote."
  • Bill O'Neal: "I realized early that I’m not a gifted writer, so I’ve worked very hard (armed with my trusty thesaurus) to become a good craftsman, a wordsmith who can produce a smooth read."
  • Rick Atkinson: "My ambition is to have a distinctive narrative voice, to bring a literary sensibility to writing about war, and to make that voice compelling enough and vivid enough that even people who are well read about World War II feel that they are coming to the story fresh."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Blog CCXI (211): Patton as an Academic

Mark Grimsley
Mark Grimsley of The Ohio State University is one of the leading military historians in the profession.  He writes primarily on the Civil War time period.  His first book was: The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), which won the Lincoln Prize.  He has written, co-written, or edited five others.  He has won three teaching awards at OSU.  He is also a blogger of the first order.  He developed the website, Facebook page, and blog of the Society for Military.  His website is and the blog of that website is: "Blog Them Out of the Stone Age: Toward A Broader Vision of Military History and National Security Affairs." 

An essay he posted on "Blog Them Out of the Stone Age" really spoke to me in several ways.  As many of you might note, I wrote a book on the making of the film Patton.  The introduction is the piece of writing I am most proud of at the moment.  I modeled it after the Frank Sinatra film The Manchurian Candidate (1962), cutting back and forth between George C. Scott shooting the scene, the scene itself, and reactions to that section of the film.  (Francis Ford Coppola wrote this section of the script, by gluing several speeches the real Patton gave into one short address).  The chapter that was the most difficult to write was the one, where I discuss all the references to it in films and television shows since  and various other appropriations of the film.  In one of the more clever of these efforts, Grimsley rewrote the scene with Patton as an academic. It begins:
Now I want you to remember that few PhDs ever get the job they really wanted. They get used to taking a job at some college where they feel under-placed.
It ends:
Now, all this stuff about there not being many jobs, much less tenure-track jobs, is absolute gospel. Colleges love to exploit PhDs.  Most real colleges love to make you adjuncts. 
Oh.  I will be proud to lead you gullible fools down the garden path any time I can get my readings course to subscribe 
That’s all.
I am not sure if I should laugh or cry.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Blog CCX (210): People News

A couple of new developments in the history business have transpired of late that are worth taking note of.  Here they are:

Benjamin H. Irvin
The Journal of American History has a new editor.  Benjamin H. Irvin, associate professor at the University of Arizona, is taking over the journal and will also serve as associate professor in the department of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (2011).   His next book, which is in the works, focuses on veterans of the American Revolution in the early republic period.

Alex Lichtenstien
The American Historical Association is also changing editors. Alex Lichtenstein, professor of history at Indiana University, will take over as editor of the American Historical Review in August of 2017.  Unlike Irvin, Lichtenstein is already a member of the Indiana faculty.  His research focuses on labor history and the struggle for racial justice against the forces of white supremacy.  He is no stranger to the journal.  He served as associate editor of the AHR in 2014–15 and interim editor in 2015–16. He has also been the editor of another academic publication, Safundi: The Journal of South African & American Studies.

Angela Lahr
The blog of the American Historical Association has a feature called "Member Spotlight."  This feature is a series of interviews with individual members of the AHA.  On May 5, the series focused on a friend of the blog: Angela Lahr of Westminster College.  Lahr wrote one of the first entries in the "Eight Questions" series.  To be specific, she wrote Blog CX (110): Eight Questions: Religious History.

Edwin J. Perkins
A few months before, the "Member Spotlight" series focused on another friend of the blog, Edwin J. Perkins, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California.  We were both at USC at the same time in the mid 1990s.  I never took any classes from him, but he gave me a good deal of professional advice--he was the associate editor of Pacific Historical Review at the time.  He took a look at the first academic article I ever published.  Much of his input  has percolated into this blog in many ways. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Blog CCIX (209): Faculty Unions the California Case Study

I have never really believed that faculty unions will solve the problems facing history.  With that said, while I am a bit skeptical, I am open-minded.  The Organization of American Historians has published several articles on its blog about the status of contingent faculty.  Donald W. Rogers, an adjunct lecturer in history at both Central Connecticut State University and Housatonic Community College, argues, "The most impressive gains for contingent faculty members have come from local campaigns waged on a campus-by-campus basis."   Labor unions have secured collective bargaining agreements that have the states of  part-time faculty.  "The gold standard for these contracts has been set by faculty associations in Canadian institutions like Concordia University and the California State University system."

Trevor Griffey, a former adjunct professor in the history department at Long Beach State, begs to differ.  He has an interesting article on the blog about his experiences as an adjunct and as a union organizer: "Can Faculty Labor Unions Stop the Decline of Tenure?"  The answer seems to be: not really.  "Arguably, they have slowed the decline of faculty pay and job security more than they have reversed it," Griffey states.  He also explains that two-thirds of all unionized faculty are located in five states: California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. 

In 2001-2002, the California Faculty Association, the union representing faculty in the California State University system got the California state legislature to commit to having a tenure density of 75 percent.  The results were immediate.  Cal State schools hired nearly 2,000 new faculty positions--all to the good.  The thing is--almost at the same time, the state legislature cut funding to the system by half a billion dollars.  What happened?  Tuition went up, non-teaching elements of the system were cut to the bone, and salaries for faculty went down.  The average is $38,000 and that is in California, which is a bit more expensive than other areas of the country. "The biggest lesson that I take from my brief experience in the CSU system," Griffey observes, "is that college faculty in labor unions currently lack the power to effectively resist or reverse the decline of tenure."  Griffey also notes that administrators are not the real problem, although he admits that many in the Faculty Association disagree with him.  The real problem is the state legislature, which the union is reluctant to criticizes, for partisan reasons.
The essay is interesting and thoughtful, presenting a complex issue without dumbing it down.  I suggest a careful read.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Blog CCVIII (208): Ten Greatest Television and Film College Professors

The most previous post got me to thinking about the portrayals of college professors in film and on television.  I suppose one could write a serious, scholarly article on the topic, but that also seems to suck all the fun out of it.  Below is my list.  My criteria was pretty lose.  I had to have seen the film and the character had to have been a professor at a college or university even if the story line was about another activity, which is true about a lot of them.

Turns out Hollywood finds college professors a pretty interesting lot.  No wonder people keep enrolling in graduate school despite the dire economics of it all!  We do all sorts of things from dating Jennifer Anniston to finding the Holy Grail, and helping win the Cold War to documenting the nature of human society for aliens from outer space.  Enjoy:

10)  Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. (John Houseman) The Paper Chase (1973)
Houseman won an Academy Award as best supporting actor for this role. A writer, director, and producer, Houseman was the director of the drama division at The Juilliard School.   His students included Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Reeve, and Robin Williams.  Kingsfield was first major acting job.  At least one of his former students said Houseman was not acting.  The thing that is different about this role from most of the others on this list is that that Kingsfield's main activity on screen is teaching.  It also is probably the most realistic portrayal of a college professor.

9)  Professor Terguson (Sam Kinison) Back to School (1986)
Kinison's role in this film is quite small, but Terguson makes this list mainly because he is a historian.  Kinison was a stand up comic, and in his main scene, he delivered his lines in the screaming style that characterized his night club routines:
Terguson: You remember that thing we had about 30 years ago called the Korean conflict? And how we failed to achieve victory? How come we didn't cross the 38th parallel and push those rice-eaters back to the Great Wall of China? Then take the fucking wall apart brick by brick and nuke them back into the fucking stone age forever? Tell me why! How come? Say it! Say it!
Thornton Melon: All right. I'll say it. 'Cause Truman was too much of a pussy wimp to let MacArthur go in there and blow out those Commie bastards!
Professor Terguson: Good answer. Good answer. I like the way you think. I'm gonna be watching you.
Thornton Melon (to the camera): Good teacher. He really seems to care. About what I have no idea.

8) Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) The Da Vinci Code (2006) Angels & Demons (2009) and Inferno (2016)
In Dan Brown's novels and the films, Langdon is a professor of religious symbology at Harvard University.  There is no actual field of "religious symbology."  What Langdon does is really art history.  Does not sound as cool, though. 

7)  Richard "Dick" Solomon (John Lithgow) 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001)
Solomon is a professor of physics at Pendleton State University in Rutherford, Ohio and shares an office with Mary Albright, a professor of anthropology.  I always wondered how small Pendleton had to be for professors from such different fields to be sharing an office.  The other thing is that Solomon is an alien sent to Earth to observe the human race.  Lithgow is hilarious in the role and won three Emmy Awards.  Of course, he might have had some help.  His wife is a history professor.

6) Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) The Hunt for Red October (1990)
The question is which Jack Ryan?: Baldwin's, Harrison Ford's, Ben Affleck's, or Chris Pine's.  I will go with the original, even though all the things Ryan has done by 31 (Baldwin's age at the time) is pushing the limits of believability: CIA analyst, U.S. Naval Academy history professor, published historian, Ph.D. from Georgetown, a Wall Street trader who made $8 million before going to grad school, and U.S. Naval Academy graduate.  (His undergraduate alma matter is a major difference between the films and books). But The Hunt for Red October has a great line that is from the original novel:
Capt. Marko Ramius: What books did you write?  
Jack Ryan: I wrote a biography of, of Admiral Halsey, called The Fighting Sailor, about, uh, naval combat tactics... 
Capt. Ramius: I know this book!  
Capt. Vasili Borodin: Torpedo impact... 
Capt. Ramius: Your conclusions were all wrong, Ryan... 
Capt. Vasili Borodin: ...10 seconds. 
Capt. Ramius: ...Halsey acted stupidly.

5) Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) How I Met Your Mother (2005-2013)
Theodore Evelyn Mosby is an architect living and working in New York, New York.  How I Met Your Mother is the story about how he found his wife.  Mosby is telling the story in flashback mode.  In the nine seasons of the television program, he dated 38 women, before finding "the one."  In season four his fiancé leaves him hours before the wedding for her son's father.  In an effort to make things right, her once again boyfriend uses his family connections to get Mosby a job as a professor of architecture at Columbia University as a consolation prize.  Mosby teaches at Columbia even though he only has a bachelor's degree.  (He must of been some type of adjunct).  As it turns out, he and his future wife see each other for the first time when Mosby accidentally enters the wrong classroom on his first day of teaching.  As a professor, his students tend to act as something of an entourage. 
Image result for the professor gilligan's island inventions
4) The Professor (Russell Johnson) Gilligan's Island (1964-1967)
Roy Hinkley, Ph.D. apparently liked Los Angeles and the Dallas/Forth Worth area.  He has degrees from USC, UCLA, TCU, and SMU.  Cool, calm, and rational, he took a lot of books with him for a three hour tour.  The Professor was a learned man and a master of many fields of science, but some things were beyond him.  In the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, Bob Denver played the "Bartender" who was Gilligan in everything but name for legal reasons (the "Bartender" even dressed like Gilligan), and delivered this line:
You know, I lived with a guy for years. A real genius. He could take a couple of these pineapples or a couple of coconuts with some strings and wire and make a nuclear reactor. But he couldn't fix a two-foot hole in a boat. Wanna hear the rest?

3) Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989)
Venkman loses his job at Columbia University early in the film--apparently he did not have tenure--and the dean makes the reasons for his dismissal clear:
Doctor... Venkman. We believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge... or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman! 
Venkman then goes on to fame as the leader of the Ghostbusters and saves the city from Gozer the Gozerian, a Summerian god who comes in the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

2)  Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) Friends (1994-2004)
Friends was one of the funniest shows on television and dominated the 1990s.  Ross has a Ph.D. in paleontology from Columbia University at age 27, which is possible, but just barely.  At times Schwimmer's portrayal struck me as quite realistic; Ross seems a bit "over devoted" to his field, and is a bit sensitive when people did not treat his title of "doctor" with the same level of respect that they would give a physician,  On the other hand, all he seems to do is hangout with his friends at the local coffee shop, and has a really healthy social life for an academic--he got married and divorced three times and slept with lot of other women.  People have done studies, and come up with numbers ranging from 14 to 17, which is twice the supposed national average.

1) Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Not many people know this but Indiana Jones has been played by 7 actors in the 4 films and the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, an American television series that lasted for 4 seasons.  Despite that fact, Harrison Ford is the actor most associated with this role.  In 2003 the American Film Institute ranked Jones as the second greatest cinematic hero of all time.  He got his Ph.D. in archeology at the University of Chicago and teaches at Marshall College in Connecticut.  He seems to be a specialist in a number of time periods and locals, which is super unrealistic.  But how many of us get to see God evaporate a professional, academic rival into nothing?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Blog CCVII (207): Life in Hell

Matt Groening rocketed to fame when he created The Simpsons.  Before that he drew the Life in Hell cartoon.  I remember seeing this cartoon as an undergraduate and laughing hysterically.  Today, it gets a chuckle.  I think that is me and not the cartoon.  Enjoy:

matt groening life in hell