A Train Wreck in the Making

Earlier this week I introduced you to Byron Thomas, who is considering joining the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  It looks like the research that will be necessary to establish his connection with a Confederate soldier will have to wait as Byron needs to write an essay on Robert E. Lee.  Now being enrolled at a state university in South Carolina one would assume that Byron would ask a librarian and/or the history department for references.  Instead, Byron is asking the good folks at the SHPG for their recommendations.  This is a train wreck in the making and wrong on so many levels.

We’ve seen this group in action when it comes to doing history.  If this is for a history class, Byron is going to be eaten alive by his professor.

Here is a wonderful example of what happens when we fail to train students on how to utilize the Internet.  We all know it can be a powerful tool when used correctly, but the vast majority of students have little training on how to search for information and evaluate individual websites.  We also need to train our students on how to do historical research.  It needs to begin in middle school, if not before, and continue right through college.  If Byron’s professors are simply assigning history essays without any training than they deserve to have to read what is likely to be produced as a result of what we see here.

And what we see here is basically the equivalent of approaching strangers on the street and asking them for reliable sources.  How sad.

[Byron, if you are reading, start with these references from the Virginia Historical Society.  Your library is likely to have most of these titles.  Talk to your librarian and not the SHPG.  Good luck.]
13 comments… add one
  • Vicki Betts Nov 17, 2012 @ 11:52

    BTW, I’ll be sitting in on the Civil War memory session of our current Civil War grad class the Monday evening after Thanksgiving. I’ve taken a look at how Civil War memory has played out locally, from the earliest reunions to the current practice of placing “Southern belles” out in front of oil boom houses during the Azalea Trail each spring. (Why not fit the outfit to the house date?) I’m especially taking a couple of newspaper articles from the dedication of our Confederate monument in 1909. There’s a section on the local UDC and just how methodical they were in preserving “Southern history” including getting all of the schools except Tyler High named after Confederate veterans, placing portraits of Davis and Lee in every school, and adding Southern history books to the public library. Fast forward that to the 1930s when a proposed WPA project was designed to reconstruct our local POW camp, then fast forward again to the 1960s with Robert E. Lee High School (with all accompanying symbolism), a subdivision with all Civil War street names, and a bunch of historical markers. The trick is to tease out the legitimate historical interest from the purposeful mythology. Anyway, the prof has already alerted me that the class discussion could be lively.

    Vicki Betts

  • Vicki Betts Nov 17, 2012 @ 11:41

    It can be amazingly hard to get a university faculty member to carve out a little bit of time for a librarian to speak to the class about the amazing resources we have in print, microform, and in paid databases, as well free through digital archives like Documenting the American South or Secession Era Editorials. That is NOT a problem with our current Civil War professor, but there are others that at best give a “go see Vicki in the Library” referral. BTW, I have a Civil War Libguide at http://libguides.uttyler.edu/content.php?pid=33095 that includes both subscription (UT-Tyler community only) and free public links. See especially the tabs on newspapers and websites.

    It’s also amazing to what lengths some students will go to not use a library, or increasingly, to not open a paper book. Then, the day before the paper is due, they are in trying to figure out how to write up their citations.

    –Vicki Betts, University of Texas at Tyler Library

  • Bummer Nov 17, 2012 @ 8:39

    As an older Bummer, testifying to the handicap of not learning to navigate the web years ago, has been a real trial. Wife, children, Kevin, Brooks, Andy and others that I review on a daily basis, guide any advancement in the digital research that is needed to share 40 years of studying the Civil War.

    Hoping that Byron can extricate himself from this warped group may be the wrong mindset. Maybe he is using this exposure in order to reverse the tables and reveal the SCV for what it really is. Bummer is always looking for that silver lining and happy ending.


  • Keith Muchowski Nov 16, 2012 @ 18:27

    My gosh, I really feel bad for this kid. It sounds like ignorance mixed with a search for acceptance, something I guess all young people are looking for. Throw in the “Southern heritage” bit and it is indeed a train wreck in the making. As a professional librarian I see everyday the mistakes people make when gathering information and try to do something about it. Hopefully someone will indeed do this for him.

  • Greg Rowe Nov 16, 2012 @ 17:14

    Kevin, you will be happy to know I have made media literacy a unit of my middle school Media Arts class, with the primary focus being digital resources. I am also working with history department chair in helping students evaluate sources for National History Day projects. I am only one teacher, but it has to start somewhere.

    I know many college professors, historians and academics in general frown on digital sources, but being a good distance from even a regional division of the National Archives, digitized primary sources are what we are faced with. We are an hour from Dallas and many students can’t travel there to look at the primary sources housed there, much less travel to other locations that house primary source documents. As more primary sources, even peer-reviewed secondary sources, come “online,” do you see a future where a website won’t automatically be discounted by teachers, professors and historians? I don’t automatically discount the information my students use if I believe they have vetted a site properly, but that’s usually my high school students. I try to get my middle schoolers to the point they can critique the quality of information on a site.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2012 @ 17:24

      Hi Greg,

      Nice to hear from you. That’s music to my ears. There is absolutely no reason not to use digital sources as long as your students can properly navigate the web. Sounds like you are doing just that.

  • Jimmy Dick Nov 16, 2012 @ 15:43

    There are quite a few professors who won’t accept any sources from the SCV, UDC, or the Politically Incorrect guides not to mention other books and or publications advocating the Lost Cause or are reliant upon either shoddy or biased historical research. I had one graduate level professor who was pretty blunt about it. “This is graduate level coursework. We rely on facts at this level of historical research. If you want to believe in the Lost Cause or Black Confederates you shouldn’t be in graduate school. Don’t even bother to turn in anything advocating or promoting the Lost Cause because you will receive an automatic zero.”
    I loved the bluntness of the statement because I had just finished a graduate level class on the antebellum period where two students constantly stated over and over again how slavery had nothing to do with the cause of the Civil War at all.

    I just had an argument with someone who is a disciple of Thomas Wood and his polemic history of the US. He wasn’t happy when I informed him that Wood’s books aren’t usable in my classes nor were the types listed above.

    • Rob Baker Nov 16, 2012 @ 16:18

      Or Pelican Press.

      In all seriousness though, what professor is allowing him to get away with 7 sources on a topic so broad? I don’t think this is necessarily for a History class but a topic he chose to write a paper on. Sort of like his confederate flag paper.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2012 @ 17:25

      I understand the point the professor is making, but I would never frame it in this way. What he/she needs to do is make sure students understand what a properly vetted secondary source looks like and the rest should fall into place.

  • Larry Cebula Nov 16, 2012 @ 15:30

    Thank you, Mr. Meat Ass.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2012 @ 17:25

      The “Mr.” gives it an air of respectability. 🙂

    • Andy Hall Nov 16, 2012 @ 17:32

      Mestas is currently circulating a passage attributed to the historian James Ford Rhodes (1848-1927), supposedly from Vol. 4 of his History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Final Restoration of Home Rule at the South in 1877. In fact, Rhodes wrote not a word of it; it’s lifted verbatim from Mildred Lewis Rutherford’s Truths of History, a classic distillation of Lost Cause orthodoxy. (Rutherford was president of the Georgia Division of the UDC from 1899-1902, and historian general of the national UDC from 1911 to 1916.) The false attribution to Rhodes is Rutherford’s, originally; the first few lines are not Rhodes’ writing, but a crude paraphrase of a footnote in Rhodes’ book, quoting a contemporary editorial in a London newspaper. In 1920 Rutherford made it look like the idea that the Emancipation Proclamation was intended to incite a slave insurrection of murder and bloodshed was the studied assessment of Rhodes himself, by then a distinguished and prominent historian and holder of the Pulitzer Prize, and that little bit of dishonesty has been repeated again and again for almost a century, right down to the present and Robert Mestas.

      This sort of thing is easy to correctly attribute, but Mestas and that crowd genuinely don’t care about getting this stuff right, so long as it affirms their own preconceived notions. (Mestas, in particular, is fundamentally unconcerned about giving proper credit; I don’t mind so much that he lifts images from my blog, but it’s troublesome that he sees no need to credit the original source.)

      Good luck, Byron — you’re gonna need it.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2012 @ 17:47

        And you can’t beat the advice from “Little Rebel”/Ann DeWitt: Search on keyword Robert E Lee on books.google.com . Oh, brother.

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