“The words ‘fudge’, ‘nonsense’, ‘oh’, ‘pooh’, ‘sentimental’, ‘superficial’, ‘stupid’, ‘very stupid’, ‘trash’ are among the many pencilled annotations dotting the pages of John Stuart Mill’s personal copies of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays.”—Mill and Emerson: Sense and Nonsense | History Today
“Most problems in writing come from the anxiety caused by the unconscious realization that what you write is you and has to be held out for others to see. You are naked and shivering out on that limb that seems likely to break off and bring you tumbling down into the ignominy of being accused of inadequate research, muddy unoriginal analysis, and clumsy writing. So you hide yourself behind jargon, opacity, circuitousness, the passive voice, and a seeming reluctance to get to the point. It is so much safer there in the foliage that blocks the reader’s comprehension, but in the end so unsatisfying. No one cares because they cannot figure out what you mean to say. How much better it is to stand up before the firing line and discover that no one ordered your execution.”—Lynn Hunt in The Art of History: How Writing Leads to Thinking
“David Lowenthal reminds us that the past is a “foreign country.” A foreign country, not a foreign planet. To replace naive historicism with a rigid sense of disconnection is to play mental musical chairs, to give up one reductionism only to adopt another.”—Sam Wineburg
My post for the New York Times Disunion blog on Emancipation Park, Sabine Pass, and Civil War memory in Houston. For more, see the online exhibit and digital archive on the subject built by students at Rice University in 2011.
“There was a time when I believed that photography could change the world. Now all I hope for is a photograph that will invite my curiosity, encourage me to slow down, and offer to change my understanding of the world (and the way i feel about my life).”—My Rice University colleague Paul Hester
“Teaching situations in which students as well as teachers are deeply affected by fear of rejection, by doubt and insecurity about their own abilities, and by an often-unexpressed anger towards each other are counter-educational. Nobody will show his most precious talent to those whom he fears.”—Henri Nouwen
“If we are to acknowledge the claims of the past upon the present and to frame our scholarship as an act of redress, it seems to me important that we do so in ways which engage the exigencies of the present—the globalization of racialized and feminized structures of exploitation, rates of black incarceration in the United States that are unprecedented in world history, the resurgence of slavery—plain and simple slavery—as a mode of production, and, importantly, the emergence of new forms of (global) political solidarity and collective action—with terms other than those produced by an earlier struggle. It requires, that is, that we re-immerse ourselves in the nightmare of History rather than resting easy while dreaming that it is dawn and we have awakened.”—Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History. This article has usually been read as a brilliant historiographical critique of the concept of “agency,” but it’s easy to forget that it ends with a call to action. I’ve recently become a board member of a group heeding that call, Historians Against Slavery, and will be tweeting for the organization at @HASlavery.
“William Thoms recognized back in 1849 that a major benefit of sharing working notes would be to induce researchers to “look over their own collections” and, by allowing others access, improve their own chances of finding past work (Thoms 1849, 2). In other words, a researcher need not be motivated by scholarly altruism to share her work. Yet Thoms believed that were sharing of notes to become cheap and frequent, then researchers would not hesitate to give help, not only to others engaged in similar lines of research, but also to “those who are going different ways, and only meet at the crossings” (Thoms 1849, 2). As this research commons grew, so would the opportunities for such crossings, and the net result would be more efficient research at the global level as well as the local.”—"Open Notebook Humanities: Promise and Problems," Abstracts | Digital Humanities 2013
“You come across something that you had not known about, something that surprises you a little. Cultivate that surprise. Do not say to yourself, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” and go on with your reading. Stop right there.”—Edmund S. Morgan, via The Junto
“The more I gave to the students, the more they gave back. We rose to the occasion of one another’s presence, and before the hour was over I knew that while the scenery had changed, my vocation had not. I was still on holy ground. All the familiar human sorrows were in that room, all the human hunger for meaning and for love. I was still in the privileged position of choosing words that fell into deep water, and of asking the kinds of questions that mattered.”—Barbara Brown Taylor, on Leaving Church and the Episcopal priesthood for a college classroom and the professoriate
“Presentation of historical scholarship as an argument presumes a finished product. But most time spent on historical scholarship is messy: rooting through Hollinger boxes, begging someone for an oral history interview, coughing through a shelf of city reports or directories, rereading notes, drafting manuscripts, sorting through critical comments, revising, and so forth. A published work does not materialize from a vacuum, and all that preceded and underlay it is legitimately part of historical work. Public presentations of history in the digital age reveal the extent of that “pre-argument” work, often in an explicitly demonstrative fashion or allowing an audience to work with evidence that is less directly accessible in a fixed, bound presentation. Digital history thus undresses the historical argument, showing that all our professional garments are clothing, even those not usually seen in public.”—Sherman Dorn
“A problem is only a problem within a particular context. A solution is only a solution within a particular context. Some branches of natural and social science are more context-aware than others, but it’s the humanities and arts that are hyper-alert to context. If our society is going to have a fighting chance of wrestling effectively with the wide range of problems that we currently face, we need a wide variety of perspectives on how the problems are defined and approached. We need not simply technical descriptions of the problems but humane understandings of how the problems emerged out of a particular context, and a creative envisioning of how we might find a way of addressing (if not solving) problems.”—David Voelker, The Gray Box - The Gray Box Blog - The Humanities Know (Part 1)
We operate now in a world where information is endlessly available. It is the cheapest, easiest thing to get hold of, whether you’re pulling links off Twitter or searching the Department of Labor and Statistics. Finding words and research and data is not a big problem. But discerning what is useful, and what is real, is a vital skill.
A worker in the creative economy requires several levels of discernment. The first and easiest might simply be described as filtering, that is, distinguishing between the weird echo chambers of crazy that exist on the Internet and the solid gold of credibly sourced content. I’m sure you all saw some of the bizarre photographs that were going around on Facebook and Twitter during Hurricane Sandy. New York City sparkling under an apocalyptic cloud of doom. Waves breaking high around the Statue of Liberty’s shoulders. Some of it was obviously fake, a lot of it wasn’t. And that’s what it’s like now: Rumor flies through social media like Instagram or Tumblr or Pinterest, spread by individuals meaning to help or disrupt or just to say, “WOW, look at this.” Professional content providers – whether news organizations, public information officers, emergency first responders – distribute these ideas, possibly first reporting them as rumor and then slowly sliding into reporting them as reality. Strange stories and improbable facts enter the vast distributed online database of information that writers search when they sit down to start learning.
How can you help your students learn to distinguish between credible content and utter worthless crap? If you can help them with that, you will have done them, and society, an enormous service.