Category: 2008s

    Authors of Interrogation Handbook Abuse Their Sources

    In a piece called "Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing" from today's New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently "American military and intelligence officers" (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like "The Manchurian Candidate." In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called "harsh interrogation techniques" when the more negatively valued term "torture" is being deliberately avoided. "They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo."

    The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here's the real bombshell:

    The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

    This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.

    Received Rights versus Human Rights in the 'Declaration of Independence'

    Featured image: The famous "Declaration of Independence" painting by John Trumbull

    Today citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. On this day, 232 years ago, thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain in a famous document that Thomas Jefferson wrote, the Declaration of Independence. As a history teacher, I find this document fascinating, because it fuses together two different political traditions. On one hand, it recalls seventeenth-century English constitutionalism and its arguments about what had supposedly always been the rights of Englishmen. On the other hand, it advances the kind of powerful and universalizing claims about natural law and human rights spawned in the Enlightenment and given their most dramatic expression during the French Revolution. These connections make the document an interesting object lesson for the history classroom. They also can act as a healthy reminder to Americans that our Declaration of Independence displays not only differences from European political traditions, but also powerful affinities for them.

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    Summer Term

    The summer term is upon me. Here is this summer’s version of “Western Civ” at George Mason University and “Euro Civ I” at Georgetown University. Both courses are thematically organized. Neither has electronic assignments due to the compressed time period in which everything has to be done. Euro Civ I has only papers. Western Civ has papers and source analysis homework. In the latter case I figure the additional structure might be helpful, because the course has to bring students right up to the present. Of course, some students are going to hate me for it, which a reminder of the absence of exams might or might not ameliorate.

    By the way, Euro Civ II will probably be chronologically—not thematically—organized. For that course I have the luxury of a whole term to cover only two hundred years of history.

    Do You Link to Your Sources?

    This following piece appeared on this day on the blog of the now defunct Blog Catalog.. At the time the site was a hybrid blog portal–social networking site with an active community. I pulled it from the Wayback Machine.

    Too often I come across an interesting piece of information on a blog that does not contain links to the author’s sources. That’s too bad. All I can do at that point is shrug my shoulders and wonder if the story is true. Then I’ll probably close that browser tab and go somewhere else, because I won’t risk experiencing similar frustration with a second story on the same blog. Of course, if the story is really important to me, I can do further research on Google, which is fair enough. At the same time, though, what reason have you given me to go back to your blog? None. Offer me a good, well sourced post, though, and I will be back. Links to your sources are important for at least four reasons:

    1. Verifiability. Links to your sources allow me to verify whether or not your story is true. For this to work, though, they should point to hard news sources, not just another blog. Bobbie Sullivan does this on Aircrew Buzz and her other aviation blogs.
    2. Acknowledgment. Sources permit you to acknowledge where you got your ideas and information from in the first place. These can include not only hard news sources, but also any blog or other source that sparked you to think about the topic. If the information is not generally known, though, include additional sources to satisfy the verifiability requirement. I sometimes handle acknowledgments with a hat tip. You can see one Gavin Robinson gave me in the first paragraph of the 14th Military History Carnival.
    3. Examples. Sources can help provide you with the kinds of examples you need to support your arguments. Since the internet is a hypertext environment, sources can also help you to pack more information into a post without providing loads of background details. I used links in this manner in the second paragraph of a post about generational differences between Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. I’m also linking examples in this post about sources.
    4. Context. Sources help locate your ideas within their broader context. By providing links to that context, you help your reader to understand how your ideas relate to other opinions and discussions on the internet, and on your own blog. In the process you provide additional value to your reader, giving her one more reason to return. One blogger who often provides good context through linked sources is Rich Becker of Copywrite. Ink.
      Of course, not all blog posts need sources. If you are writing about your own life, you are the acknowledged expert on it. Enough said. And no one who has heard Tony Hogan’s music is going to ask him to provide sources for the advice he offers on learning the guitar. It helps, though, that he has a good about page on his blog, which tells us a bit more about him. And what about me? Why do I think I can offer this advice without providing sources on the art of sourcing? My field is history, and getting students to understand the value of sources is one of my everyday teaching concerns. Yes, I could be making this up, but you can find out more about me at Clio and Me.*

    *Clio and Me was my history-focused blog. I later closed it and migrated posts to this domain.

    Ignorance or Deliberate Abuse?

    I can't decide whether the White House is deliberately insulting our intelligence with Bush's recent appeasement accusations or if they really don't know anything about Neville Chamberlain's appeasement. Chamberlain isn't criticized in history for talking to Hitler, but rather for giving away the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and with it that country's means to defend itself against Germany. The difference is not trivial. And what does McCain's echoing of Bush's remarks tell us about him? Did he also not learn this bit of history? Or is this just politics? Be that as it may, Kevin Levin is right about this being a teachable moment. The "Hardball" video he posted on his blog is hilarious and sad at the same time.

    Human Rights in the History Survey

    I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier, this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was "Politics and Human Rights."

    If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century.

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    Language and Culture: The Way We Speak

    I originally posted this piece on this day on my old teaching blog, Language for You.

    Learning English is not just about sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and intonation. There is also the problem of culture. People talk about different things in different countries, and when they discuss these things, they might use blunt language, euphemistic language, or something in-between. The choice might be personal, but often it is cultural.

    One cultural peculiarity of Americans is small talk. For instance, I have no trouble chatting with total strangers while waiting in a grocery store line or for a bus. When I try that in southern Germany, however, people look at me like I am very strange indeed, or so the reactions have seemed to me.

    Culture also affects how we talk about ourselves at job interviews, which is the real point of this short post. You see, NPR recently did a story on the challenges non-native speakers encounter in the United States when hunting for a job. Check out Sally Herships, "Overcoming Cultural Barriers To Jobs."

    What do you think? Have you got any cross-cultural stories to share?

    Textbook Costs

    I heard a report on Marketplace this evening about the high cost of txtbooks and how Congress wants to force publishers to reveal to professors the costs of books they require in their courses. I find it strange that such a measure should be necessary. Is it that hard to figure out what books cost? I use Amazon when writing a syllabus. So do many other cost-conscious professors. And who is this professor they quoted who talked about being courted by publishing representatives with good chocolate in the mailroom and meals out? Certainly no history professor.

    The report blamed the rapidly growing cost of textbooks on an expansion of the used book market because of the internet. Really? Used books sounds right, but to my mind this isn't the internet per se, but rather the chains that sell books in so many university book stores. I don't know what kind of arrangement they have with their host universities, but I wouldn't be surprised if these universities are complicit in the process, insofar as they are earning money from these arrangements.

    Returning to the original topic, it is sometimes hard to tell how much new books will cost students, because publishers can only qoute net prices. In the past I tried to bundle books from a publisher, in order to lower costs. Result: the net price to the bookstore went down, but the bookstore priced the bundle with no discount, because it had to make these books more expensive than the used books it wanted to sell at some two thirds to three quarters of the new price. It earns a higher margin on those, after all.

    Some students at Georgetown University have the right idea. They set up a book coop that collects books at the end of the semester and sells books at the beginning of the next semester at the prices the owners of the books set. I wish George Mason University had something like that. I've tried to help by setting up a Google group on which my students can establish contact with each other for the purpose of buying and selling their books. So far I've had no takers.

    Fostering Historical Thinking with Brecht’s Galileo

    Spring is almost here, which means its time to order books for the summer term. Summer in DC gets hot, and the summer terms are short, so I usually try to assign things that are both reasonably entertaining and not too long for the general audience I get in my introductory survey courses that are mandatory requirements for all majors. Besides covering a variety of themes and genres, I often try to pick one book that will jump-start historical thinking. I want a book that will make students more aware of how much "the past is like a foreign country" that we will not understand, if we do not try to fathom the conditions and assumptions of the time without letting our contemporary worldview get in our way.

    Last year I tried Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, which I had first experienced as a TA for Sandra Horvath-Peterson at Georgetown University back in the 1990s. Of course, Brecht adapts Galileo's story to his own purposes, but it provides a useful point of departure for a discussion about the Scientific Revolution. It also forces students to come to terms with the limits of historical fiction.

    It usually goes pretty well, though the first section I did it in was a little rocky, partly because not enough students had done the reading, but also because I was surprised that so few people had any general knowledge of fascism. The paperback edition we used, translated by Eric Bently, contains some excellent material on Brecht's prejudices, but it spends too much time on material more of interest to specialists in drama. Some students read the first part of it, but most gave up and went straight to the play. So I integrated a mini talk of Brecht's time into the discussions and got them to reason out how the problems of the nineteen thirties and forties had manifested themselves in a play Brecht had set in the seventeenth century. I also assigned sources from 1615 and 1633, so that they could get a sense of the issues from Galileo's own time.

    One point I tried to make clear was that science was only then beginning to manifest itself as an independent discourse, that it was perfectly natural for the Church to be interested in science at the time and even claim authority on the matter. Of course, I'm no specialist on the matter, but it seems to me that this basic point is worth making. Most students seemed to get it too. Indeed, I felt like cheering when one woman near the end of a class wondered aloud what people would think about our own world in another few hundred years. Sound trivial? Maybe to historians and those for whom historical thinking comes naturally. In our presentist society and with this presentist generation, I think the question was excellent. This student and her classmates were thinking historically.

    The success of this discussion was also due in part to another issue. I have begun to “legitimate confusion” for my students,1 that is, I have begun to cultivate an awareness in them of just how hard historical interpretation can be and how important learning how to ask questions can be. With this attitude, students can explore sources and ideas honestly and thoughtfully without fear of getting it wrong and looking bad. With such an awareness, students were willing to attempt the leaps of imagination necessary to navigate among three different time periods, the early twenty-first century, the nineteen thirties and forties, and the first few decades of the seventeenth century.

    I might try this book again, though I could also do with a change. Perhaps some of you have some ideas?


    1. I can’t remember where I got this phrase, but the link is now dead or hidden behind the AHA paywall (November 26, 2014).  ↩︎

    Spring Break and Teaching

    It's spring break at George Mason University (GMU), and, starting tomorrow, I will have the apartment to myself during the day. Of course, there is a mountain of student work to correct and classes to prepare, but I think I will be able to resume blogging here again. For starters, I do not have to spend three hours a day in busses and trains between Northwest DC and Fairfax, VA. Excuses aside, I sure do admire those of you who are able to teach and blog at the same time, and I hope to begin doing the same again myself. And, hey, I even have a TA this semester, though I don't really have an office, unless having a place available for office hours that three other people use counts.

    I'm teaching three sections of History 100 again, that is, GMU's one-semester survey in Western Civilization. I'm doing it differently this semester than in previous semesters. I've thrown out the chronological approach in favor of a thematic one. I would have done this earlier, but I never got around to planning it out. This time I did not let a minor detail like that get in my way. Better to name six major themes ahead of time and then work my way through them during the semester. The chronological alternative was simply too frustrating for both me and my students.

    I've also dispensed with traditional exams and writing assignments. Instead they are each doing a Wikipedia project, an idea I got from Mills Kelly. They are also doing a group research project (three to four students each) that will result in electronic output, whether a wiki, a blog, an old-fashioned website, or something on GoogleDocs. Traditional writing and research skills still matter, but I thought I would give them assignments that teach other skills as well.

    One thing I've learned in the process already: I have to spend a lot of one-on-one time with individual students who are less familiar with this media. But they're catching on, and the course wiki I set up with Wikispaces is working well. Each page has a place for threaded discussions, and the students are talking. I'd like to think it was for the love of the subject, which in some cases it is. I am also basing a substantial chunk of their grades for the course on online and class participation.

    I do not think my thematic approach will have implications for my summer session at Georgetown University, where the mandatory survey, Themes in European Civilization, lasts two semesters. Also, because each course meets daily for five weeks in the summer, there will be no need for a wiki and there will be less opportunity for a long-term project. I'll probably work with the old format of exams and short papers, but I want to give that a little more thought.

    When Experts Are Forced to Talk to Outsiders

    Teaching undergraduate students forces me to deliver narratives and explanations to people who do not share my professional assumptions about how the world works and the way history should be told. It challenges me to think about how I can retell old stories with a different vocabulary. In the process I might even learn something. This is especially likely to happen when students ask me questions or express strong feelings about a major event. I last noticed this phenomenon in the fall, when I had my students visit the Holocaust Museum and discuss their experience in the course's online forum. I got to thinking about it again today because of an article about innovation in the New York Times last month. Innovative Minds Don't Think Alike, by Janet Rae-Dupree, points to the benefits that can accrue to experts when they open themselves up to the perspectives of outsiders.

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    Historians Speak about the Profession

    Producing Knowledge

    Mills Kelly of Edwired responds to the notion that the historical profession is about writing and therefore about publishing in traditional academic print media:

    It seems to me that the essence of scholarship is the circulation of knowledge and the discussion of that knowledge among both peers and other interested parties. How is knowledge circulated? Print, the Internet, a museum exhibit, film, radio, are all methods for circulating knowledge and all of them require some sort of writing–even if that writing doesn’t result in yet another monograph or journal article. Just as one example–this blog had more than 75,000 unique visitors in 2007. If I’m lucky, my book will sell 1,000 copies. So how is more knowledge circulated?

    Teaching Survey Courses

    In The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media, John McClymer makes an interesting point about one major difficulty of teaching introductory history classes:

    I routinely begin our explorations of topics by asking students to come up with questions. There are several reasons. The most important is that it legitimates confusion. All learning begins in puzzlement, but teachers and students routinely connive in the illusion that students understand the causes of the French Revolution and any number of equally complex developments. The first and second year students in my “Modern Europe and U.S.,1815 to the Present” do not. This is not a failure on their part or mine. A good undergraduate math student can learn to integrate equations in a Calculus I course. An equally good history student cannot master the causes of the French Revolution in an introductory history course.

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