Why I Love My Job

This semester I am working with a senior on an independent study, which focuses on the admittance of female students to the University of Virginia in the early 1970s.  The student in question has already been accepted by UVA on a full scholarship to play golf.  After reading a number of secondary sources and meeting with a member of UVA’s history department, who focuses on women’s history, I decided it was time to head on over to Special Collections to check out some primary sources.  My goal was to get her acclimated to the system so she can go in alone and on her own time.  We looked at a number of collections, but one in particular stood out.  It was called the “Woody Report” and it was commissioned by the university in 1968 to gather information from various campus community’s on where they stood on the issue of the integration of women into the university.

We thumbed through the pages, but at one point my student looked at me and said, “Mr. Levin, do you realize that this is the originial copy of the report?”  I knew at that moment exactly what was going on in her mind, and I also knew that this student would never look at history the same way.  In that moment she made the leap from textbook to an actual document.  It’s impossible to communicate the experience of holding history in your hands; in those moments time collapses and you are confronted with a piece of a story that you’ve only read about through the interpretation of another.  As we drove back to campus I casually remarked that she would have to find time in her schedule over the next few weeks to go back and check out some additional collections.  Well, she looked at me and said that she had already decided to go back first thing tomorrow morning.

…and I’ve had a smile on my face since then. 🙂

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

lincolnIf you are in the area today stop by room 4C for Lincoln cupcakes, Lincoln Logs, and a viewing of D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln” starring Walter Huston.  One of my students is bringing in Lincoln punch, but I’m not sure what that means.  I should probably sample it beforehand.

Are You a Newly-Minted Ph.D in History Looking for a Position in a Private School?

If the answer is yes, than listen carefully.  My department is currently looking to fill a couple of positions and we are getting swamped with applications.  Compared to years past we are seeing a sharp increase in the number of applications from people who have recently earned a Ph.D in history.  I assume the increase has something to do with a contracting job market in the academy as well as the state of the economy.

While I’ve strongly encouraged young Ph.Ds to consider a teaching career in private schools I think it is important to understand your competition as well as the expectations of most search committees.  First and foremost, do not send the same resume that you would send to a college or university search committee to a private school.  It should be obvious, but we are looking for very different things.  You need to emphasize your teaching experience beyond any publishing you may have done or grant writing.  In fact, if your publications are extensive you may want to consider widdling it down a bit.  Your resume needs to reflect a history and continued interest in teaching and interaction with students rather than any scholarly accomplishments.  That’s not to say that your publications are not relevant; in fact, most history departments in the private school sector are looking specifically for candidates who have a mastery of the content rather than a long list of workshops on the latest pedagogical fads.  Don’t just mention in passign that you were a teaching assistant or grader for a specific class; briefly describe your responsibilities and the extent to which you worked directly with students.  You may also want to limit the number of academic presentations and professional memberships in your application.  There is nothing worse than having to read through a long list of esoteric paper titles.  It only works to make you look like an asshole.  Again, message is everything.  Applications that fail to take these recommendations seriously send the message that the candidate is going to leave at the first opportunity.  In short, you will not be given serious consideration.

Other recommendations: Most private schools are looking for coaches.  Indicate those sports that you could coach and those that you feel comfortable assisting.  To the extent possible do some background reseach on the school that you are applying to.  Check out the history curriculum as well as the electives offered.  Indicate in your application those subjects that you can teach and consider suggesting electives that will compliment those already being offered.   Finally, check out the clubs that are offered and indicate which ones you would like to be involved with.  The more student oriented your application looks the better chance you will get that phone call.

SCV May Offer Davis-Limber Statue to Themselves

It looks like the Davis-Limber statue may wind up in a place where very few people will get to see it.  The statue was origininally offered to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar before the SCV pulled out of the deal.  They are now looking to see if the state of Mississippi is interested in it; this is likely to go down in a ball of flames.  A few people associated with Beauvoir have expresed interest in the statue.  This would be an ideal place for the statue since it served as Jefferson Davis’s residence after the war and is currently managed by the Mississipi Division, SCV.  It’s a beautiful place and by all appearances the SCV has done an excellent job of restoring the property following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Still, if the deal goes through it is hard not to consider the entire project to be a failure.  After all, the goal was to counter or balance the Lincoln-Tad statue on the grounds at Tredegar, which many in the SCV find offensive.  Don’t ask me why.  A sitting Lincoln with his arm around Tad doesn’t seem to me to be very shocking.  Finally, if the deal does go through the SCV would have offered the statue to themselves.  I wonder if they will accept it.

A Moment of Insight or Confusion?

1877_6thregimentI’ve always struggled to understand what I’ve assumed to be a radical transformation that took place within the Republican Party between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  As the story goes various pressures within the Republican Party caused them to abandon their Reconstruction agenda along with black civil rights, which allowed white “Redeemers” to reestablish white supremacy.  The emphasis on abandonment implies fundamental change with a moral twist; it doesn’t help that much of what I know about the Gilded Age and industrial revolution comes from the textbooks that I use in my AP classes. Most textbooks divide chapters between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which works to reinforce a sharp distinction between the Republican Party of Reconstruction and beyond.

I had one of those rare insights last week when it finally dawned on me that it is my preoccupation and interest in race and emancipation that has clouded my ability to more fully understand the history of the Republican Party beginning in 1855 and through the rest of the nineteenth century.  We tend to forget that the Republican Party was organized primarily around an economic agenda following the demise of the Whig Party and in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The Party initially took shape around the Great Lakes, which pushed hard for internal improvements and a federal government that would encourage and protect the development of industry.   Most Republicans had little interest in racial issues and insisted on preventing slavery from moving into the western territories so as to encourage white Americans to settle and free labor to thrive.  I recently finished reading Marc Egnal’s fine study of the economic origins of the Civil War.  He spends a great deal of time on the formation and evolution of the Republican Party’s platform through the war and into the early 1880s.  The book has helped me to place the focus back on the core pieces of the Party’s economic philosophy and the way in which their position on slavery reinforced it.

My aha moment occured when I realized that in the same year that federal troops were ordered back to their barracks in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana as part of the Compromise of 1877, they were ordered by Repubican President Rutherford B. Hayes into the North.  This was in response to what one politican called “the overwhelming labor question” which could be seen in the country’s first national walkout–the Great Railroad Strike.  In the aftermath of 1877, the federal government constructed armories in major cities to ensure that troops would be on hand in the event of further labor difficulties.  In 1892 the governor of Idaho declared martial law and sent militia units and federal troops into the mining region of Coeur d’Alene to break a strike, and in 1894 federal troops were sent to Chicago to help suppress the Pullman Strike led by the American Railway Union, whose 150,000 members included both skilled and unskilled railroad laborers.    Rather than see the abandonment of the South as a betrayal of Republican values it now seems more accurate to suggest that their movement of federal troops north reflected a continued commitment to the protection of the new engines of economic expansion: Carnegie Steel, Standard Oil, and the railroads.  By 1880 foreign workers and unions constituted more of a threat to the future of capitalism than unreconstructed white Southerners.  In short, the Republican Party was carrying out the policies that had defined it from the beginning.

Please Accept Our Statue

0_61_statue_320The Sons of Confederate Veterans is still trying to find a home for their statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber.  The statue, which cost $100,000, was originally planned for the grounds at Tredegar in Richmond next to the statue of Lincoln and his son Tad.  The American Civil War Museum accepted the statue, but made no promises as to whether it would be displayed and how.  Apparently, the SCV doesn’t know the first thing about how museums operate.  Now they are offering the statue to the state of Mississippi.  Good luck boys, but in this political climate my guess is that you don’t have a chance.  My offer still stands to use it in my classroom as an interpretive piece to help my students better understand the continued influence of the Lost Cause.  What do you say? We will take very good care of it.

Between the statue, their big ass Confederate flags flying over Southern highways, and their endorsement of a NASCAR driver, the SCV has demonstrated their commitment to wasting money and their inability to take Southern heritage seriously.

Continued Questions About North and South Magazine

Today I received a comment on a recent post concerning North and South Magazine [website is still down] from Donald E. Collins, who is a professor of history emeritus at East Carolina University and the author of the book, The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis (Rowan and Littlefield, 2005).  Here is the comment:

I hate to resort to public comments on the internet, but as an author in the current (Dec. 2008) issue of North and South, I have reached a point of frustration. I personally consider North and South to be the best popular Civil War magazine on the market. Regardless of the quality of my article on the controversy within the Confederacy on the first National Flag, I believe the selection of articles in the December issue is excellent, and am pleased to have my article included. I have found my conversations with Keith, and Terry before him, to be very pleasant. Yet my frustration with North and South comes from several things. My article on the controversy in the Confederacy over the first national flag was accepted approximately two years ago by Terry Johnson, and was scheduled in the following issue. But when Keith took over, his emphasis shifted to the military and my article sat on a tw0-year back-burner until I lost patience. But my current frustration comes from six weeks of failure to contact Keith or anyone else at the magazine, and of the failure of Keith to either pay for my writing or to send me even one free copy. I had to pay full price at the newsstand for my own article. Is there any way to have the magazine provide author copies, if not the pay? Even with this, I am a fan of the magazine and hope for its success.

I’ve made clear my position on the quality of the magazine over the past year, but I appreciate and share Professor Collins’s sincere wish that publication of the magazine continues.  It would be interesting to know if other authors are experiencing the same problems.  What I don’t understand is how does Keith Poulter expect to maintain a quality magazine if he does not honor his contracts?

“Looking for Lincoln”

abraham-lincoln-statueI am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website.  I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content.  The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use.  My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful.  I was very impressed with the documentary.  Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man.  Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life.  From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.

A few moments stand out.  I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation.  I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery.  His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln.  I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.

Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper.  Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship.  I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge.  Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.

Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention.  At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln.  They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc.  It’s all so boring and uninformative.  Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog.  Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate.  It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering.  Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery.  After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.”  I couldn’t agree more.

All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience.  The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.