Archive for the 'History' Category

History Got Me Hooked

As a student I preferred to wander around from department to department. I took classes that covered topics I was interested in or classes taught by professors I wanted to get a chance to learn from. I was a history major on paper but, mostly a student of as many disciplines as possible. Struggling to understand the different frameworks in different disciplines was some of the most intellectual fun I had while at Mary Washington.

Being the type of student who cannot settle down I often had a love-hate relationship with my major. There are certain requirements that need to be met (my inner-rebellious student just freaks out at the work “requirement”) when studying history and sometimes I didn’t particularly care for those requirements. The people who saw me stressed out by my history classes often wondered why I was a history major in the first place? It is a good question and I’m still not completely sure why at times. The best answer I have come up with is history is what happened to grab my attention first.

Monroe Hall, Sunny Day 2A history class I took my freshman year was one of the first places I had a moment that you long to have as a student of anything. It was one of those revelatory moments where you see something you hadn’t seen before even though it had been in front of your face all along. Grok is still the best word I can find that describes those kinds of moments. Those moments take many shapes and forms but, you know it when it hits you. It is a brain high where your thoughts race. You understand something in a deeper more meaningful way. For me the insight was finally realizing how historians create (yes, create) history. I talked a little bit about it after my freshman year but, the words there don’t really do it justice. Perhaps because I’ve repeatedly come back to the same revelation in different ways that it is now even more meaningful to me. Throughout my K-12 experience the historical accounts written in my textbooks were unchanging facts to me. Why would they represent anything other than what had happened? History classes were about the content not about the process. It was in my first history class in college where we looked at many primary source documents that the very obvious truth of what the discipline of history is suddenly struck me. There is no magical record of all of history that is written by divine hand that we print out as truth. No, history is a struggle to piece together the past through various types of evidence. The struggle to understand what was going on at a certain time without injecting your own biases (a seemingly impossible task). The struggle to combine the evidence and your analysis to say something about the past. My freshman year was the first time I saw this process in a way I had never seen before and I wanted more of that feeling. Throughout the rest of my time at Mary Washington I would run into the feeling several more times. Sometimes in history classes, sometimes in other classes.

Being a history major frustrated me at times because it wasn’t always about the process and sometimes it was a bit too content heavy for me. At the same time there were some history classes where I found the content highly interesting and was less interested in the process outright. I suppose I contradict myself. I still have those moments where the reality of how history is written hits me all over again and I feel a little bit of that brain high. Maybe because writing history begins to get at the question, “what is truth?” and to me that is a compelling question.

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Family History, Public History and Digital History. Oh my!

So earlier today I tweeted that I had talked to Jeff McClurken about an idea I have for an individual study. My family is fairly interested in our family history and various members have taken the time work on genealogies, recovers photos, and record other things. For some time now I wanted to create some sort of online depository to collect memories, photos, videos or whatever to create a kind of family history. A few weeks ago I started wondering if I could possibly work this into some sort of individual study. Although I knew it didn’t seem like the typical 400-level class idea I had already had a taste of one class that was quite unusual in our department, so I thought I’d give it a chance. As a side note, have I mentioned how lucky I am to be a major in a department that has someone like Jeff as the Chair? Well, I am because he entertains my craziness and has already pointed me in the direction I need to go. Being an amateur historian I still need that guidance and I am very thankful to have it.

First things first I need to figure out the methodology I will use to tackle this project. Obviously I couldn’t do this just about my family history, there needs to be some academic rigor involved with this too. One of my first tasks will be to research literature to assist me in my project. I will have to find text on family history, public history, and digital history so I can create a bibliography for this project. I will probably be enlisting the help of UMW’s very knowledgeable reference librarian Jack Bales, who has already helped me so much in my history research. I want to find some way to weave together what was going on in my ancestors lives and what was going on in the world too. There are so many questions I want to explore I don’t even know where to begin. A big component of this project will be the structure of the actual site and more than likely I will be using Omeka (oh, how I’ve missed thee!) and with a little help from Patrick Murray-John I’m sure we will kick code butt. There will surely be many more posts on this in the future.

One of the purposes for this project is not only to create a cool site for my family but, that I will create documentation so that others can create these sort of family collections and have my site as a sort of model for those interested in doing something similar. The internet has made doing family history research so much easier and because of that people have been increasingly interested in family genealogy and tracing roots. I would hope that whatever my project turns into that it will in some way enable others to do what I did so that they too can create a place to record family history. One of the greatest joys I’ve experienced during my time at college is knowing that some of the work I have done has been beneficial to others in some way.

This is still more to say about it and I’m only at the tip of the iceberg here. But I am excited to see where this takes me and if you, my dear readers, have any suggestions about anything I’d love to hear them.

Not My Thoughts On Imagination

I’ve you haven’t heard of “This Date, From Henry David Thoreau’s Journal” blog, it is an interesting read. As stated everyday there is a blog post from a journal entry. In some ways it brings Thoreau back to life, more accessible.

Here is today’s journal entry from 1859, enjoy:

Sometimes in our prosaic moods, life appears to us but a certain number more of days like those which we have lived, to be cheered not by more friends and friendship but probably fewer and less. As, perchance, we anticipate the end of this day before it is done, close the shutters, and with a cheerless resignation commence the barren evening whose fruitless end we clearly see, we despondingly think that all of life that is left is only this experience repeated a certain number of times. And so it would be, if it were not for the faculty of imagination.

“Mama Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away”

Channeling a bit of Paul Simon in this post, but up until I heard this song I had never heard of the term kodachrome and guessing from the lyrics it had to do with photography. So I took a walk over to my local reference site and according to Wikipedia it has been around since 1935. So they’ve been taking color photos since 1935? Clearly I’m not familiar with photography history and I have been highly underexposed to color photos from this time era.

This is connected to a photo blog Jim has linked to several times, called Shorpy: The 100 year old photo blog. A few months ago I had looked at it briefly and it completely threw me off that there were color pictures (vivid color) from the 1940s at first I thought they had been photoshopped. I wonder how I have never been exposed to such pictures until now? This is going on my list of “Why The Internet Rocks My World” because without it I would never have had access to the this archive of historical photos (in high-resolution!). Maybe its just me, but somehow the color photos make me feel more connected to the people in the photos, perhaps it makes more realistic. Anyone else feel the same way?

Here are some thumbnails but I recommend checking out the high-res stuff it is amazing.

1a35438upreview.jpg Sulfur Storage: 1942 1a35242upreview.jpg TVA: 1942 1a35312u_0preview.jpg Building Planes: 1942

On a random note I really like the opening line in “Kodachrome”:

“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
Its a wonder I can think at all.”
-Paul Simon

First Week: Classes Recap

The first week of school is over and done with and so far so good. My first class was my history methods course. The discussion of the article I talked about earlier in the week went well. I’m always fascinated about what in the reading struck certain people and how that compares to my reactions, I always worry that somehow I am viewing something “wrong”. Also, being in a room with a bunch of other students learning how to think like a historian puts all in the same boat. It is true that some people in class already know more than others, some are more passionate, but we all have the same road to travel.

I also have the second half of my physics course this semester and I am feeling good so far. The second half will be a little harder, but I know if I put in the time I am capable of understanding and pulling off decent grades. Before the end of the fall semester I was talking with my physics professor about my grade and the very obvious correlation between studying and doing well on tests was made even clearer. When I studied alone I did the best, when I studied with a friend I did ok, when I didn’t study that is when I did the worst. I don’t know why that would be so hard to believe, but when faced with the evidence I am now convinced that studying by myself works. A lot of my unwillingness to believe these kind of statistics until now goes back to a lot of problems I’ve had over the years of trying to beat the system. I believe there is a competition among students that if you can put in little effort, but manage to pull of something miraculous, kudos to you. It also something I think some students strive for. That game was one of the ways I entertained myself in high school seeing what I could pull off last minute and with little effort. But I am now at the point where I am exhausted by that game and have little interest in it, the high school me probably wouldn’t believe it.

So back to classes, next on my schedule is the Digital History Seminar being taught by Jeff McClurken.  I was a bit nervous going into the class because I haven’t taken a 400 level course before and I know it requires a lot of time and effort on my part. After the first two classes though, much of that apprehensiveness has faded and I am stoked to see where this class goes. This is the first time this class has been taught or anything like it has been taught at Mary Washington, we are the guinea pigs. Judging from the first two classes a lot of people feel a bit overwhelmed by all the new technology, but excited to start of the projects and learn something. Jeff gave the class a “pep talk” as one student in our class put it, I don’t think anyone in our class would doubt Jeff’s excitement about teaching this course, it is obvious to us all and it is motivating everyone in this class to get excited too.

My last class on my schedule is Elementary Astronomy. This is the first evening class and I don’t think I’d like to do it again, I start to slow down after 6pm. I am looking forward to this course, as I mentioned awhile ago I wanted to be an astronomer when I was little so I get to play out that dream a little bit here. I’ll admit to one reason I decided to take this course (besides Joe saying I should) was that I heard it was easy and after last semester I think I could use something easy (my GPA would certainly appreciate it).

Enough class talk for now, I have a whole semester ahead of me, trying to think happy thoughts.

Forgot Again and I Need Research Ideas

I was just about ready to go to bed when I remembered that I haven’t blogged today. Well technically I have blogged, just not on this blog, so that should count for something.

Right now I am in the process of trying to pick a topic for my research paper in my History Methods course. I’m trying to think of topics I like and that is not a problem, but narrowing them down is a little harder. I’ve gone from ideas about Irish history (Easter rising, Michael Collins, Bloody Sunday) to my interest in wars (more specifically World War II and the Vietnam War) to just about everything in the 20th century. I’ll admit I’m even looking at some intersections between physics and history, studying something a lot will keep it on your brain I guess.

Tomorrow morning we are going around the room to say what we think we are planning to do for our research paper. What is an indecisive girl to do? I’ll probably be running to the Prof’s office before class (nothing like last minute help, right?). I’m not enough of a history junky (yet?) to really be well versed in details and I’m not quite sure what is out there. I suppose people always face the problem of not knowing what is out there when they first start their research.

I’ve got other questions nagging me, but those will be addressed when I am in a more lucid state.

Impressions of the Naive

Tomorrow in my History 299 class we will be discussing an article called “The Experience of Writing History” written by George F. Kennan. Almost immediately I am right there with Kennan, he tells the reader that he became a historian later in life and that the article is impressions of someone just really working out what it means to be a historian, yes impressions of the naive. He says, “And since the naive is occasionally amusing, whether or not it is instructive, I thought you might just possibly like to hear what these impressions are.” I think that one line sums up thus far my experience with blogging, I love it.

His succinct writing is enjoyable and he directly tackles many of the feelings I’m sure most historians (or history majors) feel starting out in the field. When he first started out he believed that historical facts would be “lying scattered around”, waiting to be put into the right order, simple enough. Soon he realized that there were infinite ways to rearrange the facts and nothing was as simple as it seemed. Life is more like the latter than the former, we make plans of A,B,C and we end up with B,D,2 and #, what the heck? No sense in thinking we can arrange our lives in the “right” way, is there a “right” way?

Later on there is a great illustration that I think not only applies to historians, but all humans:

It is the rarest of person who today has any comprehension of the series of events which, just in his own time and that of his father, has brought him where he is today. Even the historian feels increasingly inadequate. He can only wander around, like a man with a tiny flashlight amid vast dark caverns, shining his little beam here and there for a moment on a tiny portion of the whole, but with the darkness always closing up behind him as it recedes ahead.

Kennan does not leave the reader will feelings of despair though. He ends it by reassuring us that it is not necessary to know and understand all of history and that “a little bit, looked at hard and honestly, wil, do.” It is in this little bit that we dedicate our time and lives to that we can find meaning for ourselves.

There is more to this article too, even in you are not a historian, I think it is worth the read. I’m definitely looking forward to discussing this in class tomorrow.


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