Wednesday Workshop: 5 Resources to Spice up your World History Syllabus

Here are some good, but not necessarily easy to find, resources that have helped me add some “pop” to my World and Medieval syllabi:

Carleton College, Medieval and Renaissance Studies Primary Sources. Great stuff, and longer selections, which make more sense than dozens of 1-paragraph readings (though those are useful too).

“Chinese Culture,” the richly detailed syllabus and course resources for Paul Halsall’s 1996-9 course at Brooklyn College. Thanks for keeping this page up!

A resource everyone knows about, but that seems to be constantly underestimated: The Avalon Project at Yale. Any project that has digitized a huge chunk of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial papers should receive accolades.

Donald J. Mabry’s Historical Text Archives, which aren’t always easy to navigate, but which have a lot of very useful, otherwise obscure sources and historical essays.

And, last but definitely not least, Europeana 1914-1918. This is a superbly designed site where you can search or browse for a bewildering variety sources and materials on the First World War.   You’re welcome. Happy browsing.

Il Muratore di Dio

The Mason of God (Dennis Aubrey) –

A wonderful post about Padre Pietro Lavini, a Capuchin friar who lived a hermetic existence for over 40 years. Definitely having my students read this, because the tension between the two cities is as strong now as it was in Augustine’s time.

History Thoughts: Re-reading Burckhardt

It’s funny how books you bought for class ten years ago suddenly become useful again. Or the random clearance book you bought on a whim suddenly contains a key reading for your class.

I had to purchase Jacob Burckhardt’s Reflections on History for “Theologies and Philosophies of History,” HI451 as I recall, at Rice some years back. It was a Friday afternoon seminar, the first and last time that I ever made the mistake of taking a class in that particular time block. Especially inconvenient on the last days of classes, when in time-honored fashion everyone started drinking at some ungodly hour in the a.m., and I had to decline anything more than a sip of “orange juice” because I had a presentation that afternoon.

The class was taught by one of those characters you don’t find much anymore, a chap who would have been an “Oxford don” except he was the American, Yale Divinity School version–balding, rumpled jacket, tie that his dog had chewed on, spectacles, and very affected, semi-British way of talking. During first-day introductions, he asked how I pronounced my name: “Is it ‘Frank’, ‘FrankEE’, ‘Fronke’…?”  Rather like Longshanks in Braveheart, but with an intellectual menace, rather than a physical one. “Frank,” I replied. “Ah,” came the response, “the Lippstadt-Westphalian variant.” Or some such, but that conveys the essence of the response.

I also remember he avoided the Hegel lesson for as long as possible, even punting it a week, because he disliked Hegel that much. And when the inevitable came, he proceeded to read, without much interruption, an endless stream of yellowed, type-written pages: his unchanged Hegel lecture from a century ago. I believe it was at the end of that session that I said, “Well, this was fun, but now I’m going to listen to the Beach Boys.” Which earned me the eternal contempt of the Theology masters student in the class.  No matter, it was a beautiful afternoon and my portable CD-player was fully charged.

One thing which Professor S said, that has always stuck with me, was that all theories of history have been disproved, so pick one that you like and stick with it, flaws and all. A rather depressed, perhaps (neo-)Burckhardtian view, I think. As I cracked open Reflections this evening, my eyes found these passages from chapter 1 that will withstand some meditation:

We shall, further, make no attempt at system, nor lay any claim to ‘historical principles.’ On the contrary, we shall confine ourselves to observation, taking transverse sections of history in as many directions as possible. Above all, we have nothing to do with the philosophy of history.

The philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms, for history coordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.


As regards the characteristics of the philosophy of history current hitherto, it followed in the wake of history, taking longitudinal directions. It proceeded chronologically.

In this way it sought to elicit a general scheme of world development, generally in a highly optimistic sense.


The danger which lies in wait for all chronologically arranged philosophies of history is that they must, at best, degenerate into histories of civilizations (in which improper sense the term philosophy of history may be allowed to stand); otherwise, thought claiming to pursue a world plan, they are colored by preconceived ideas which the philosophers have imbibed since their infancy.


For that matter, every method is open to criticism, and none is universally valid. Every individual approaches this huge theme of contemplation in his own way, which may be his spiritual way through life: he may then shape his method as that way leads him.

Our task, therefore, being a modest one inasmuch as our train of thought lays no claim to system, we can (fortunately for us!) be thrifty. Not only may and must we leave out of account all hypothetical primitive conditions, all discussions of origins; we must also confine ourselves to the active races, and among these, to the peoples whose history yields us pictures of civilization which are sufficiently and indisputably distinct. […]

The study of any other branch of knowledge may begin with origins, but not that of history. After all, our historical pictures are, for the most part, pure constructions, as we shall see more particularly when we come to speak of the state. Indeed, they are mere reflections of ourselves. There is little value in conclusions drawn from people to people or from race to race. The origins we imagine we can demonstrate are in any case quite late stages. […]

What strikes me particularly throughout this introductory chapter is how Burckhardt seems, to this 21st-century reader, to inhabit the Rankean, positivist world of 1870 (around when he delivered the initial lectures), the world of the 1960s, when E. H. Carr pronounced with ridiculous certainty that one does not study the losers of history, and the world of 1994 and beyond, with the resigned but, in mid-nineteenth century, rather post-modern pronouncement that the past is “for the most part, pure [construction].” The key insight, though, is why history resists philosophy. Or, to take J.B.’s thought one step further, theory at all. One has theories about things, it can’t be helped, but human beings are complicated creatures. Put a million of them together, and they find ways of confounding even the smartest social scientists. I think this is why we historians are often considered to be somewhat less theoretically adventurous than our friends in English, Anthropology, or the dreaded “Cultural Studies” salons. History resists order.

The conclusion of chapter 1 delivers two more major pronouncements. “The essence of history is change,” he says. The trick, of course, is not to slip into the Whiggish error of assuming that change is synonymous with the advance of liberty, a very Hegelian view at heart. Naturally, from our vantage point today we can see that that is exactly what he does, and with typical 19th-century confidence in his own impartiality to boot. Burckhardt goes on to define epochal change in a way that is at once Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,  the latest research on the Black Death and social networks, H. S. Chamberlain’s Social Darwinism.

IN nature, annihilation only comes about by the action of external causes, catastrophes of nature or climate, the overrunning of weaker species by bolder, of nobler by baser. In history, the way of annihilation is invariably prepared by inward degeneration, by decrease of life. Only then can a shock from outside put an end to the whole.

Oh dear. What a load of hogwash; it’s writing like this that fuels Matt Gabriele’s calls for “guerilla warfare” against nineteenth-century scholarship. On the other hand, buried in there is the kernel of truth that social historians have learned, that for all our talk of change, true epochal change usually comes from a shock external to our communities–the Columbian Exchange, the Black Death, World War I. Drop the Social Darwinist hokum, and you have rather profound insight into social networks, well ahead of its time.

Anyway, I look forward to chatting with this volume again.

Higher Ed Pieces that should make you think

I’ve read a lot of stimulating debates over HigherEd in the last few days, so I’ve gone back and patched together bits of various posts with links you should read.

To begin, there’s some new stuff here:

Two columns from a while back on the once-again hot topic of handwriting vs laptops (I have some provocative thoughts on that, but I’ll probably continue to meditate for a while): Fred Barbash, April 2014, “Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes,” and Maria Konnikova, June 2014, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” Plenty of important links. Neither article can be dismissed as trendy, Luddite fluff, whatever your politics may be. Simply put, the science presented here cannot be wished away.

May 9, 2015, “I Will Not Be Lectured To. I’m Too Busy Teaching.” Great column by Kevin Gannon. Professors matter in the classroom. This 2014 CHE article by Dan Berrett is off base for many reasons, primarily a) it’s incorrect, and b) what parts of it are correct have been happening for some time, and aren’t new.

On lectures, from May 2014:

“Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too.”  Which statement becomes contextualized in the article when you realize that a) they’re talking about STEM classes, and b) they’re not talking about doing away with the lecture (which, given budgetary constraints, isn’t going to happen for a while), but instead incorporating “active learning techniques” into the lecture format. Personally, this hand-wringing over lectures is annoying, and getting old. I already use  these “dynamic” techniques in my lectures, which by all student accounts achieve exactly what these studies say you can’t achieve in this format. Yes, Bligh’s 2000 “What’s the Use of Lectures?” lays out how they can’t promote critical thinking or influence behavior, and if it’s simply a professor reading his/her notes of course that’s the case. But that’s not how good teachers lecture to begin with.  And for every study that disses the lecture, one can always reply with the 2010 Harvard study that declared the lecture a fine tool for enhancing student performance. Not surprisingly, most SoTL folks don’t like referencing that study…

On lectures again, February 2014:

“Let’s Scramble, Not Flip, the Classroom,” by Pamela E. Barnett. We shouldn’t make every class a discussion-based, interactive format.  Lecture has a place as well.  Good to hear that–there is a tendency among pedagogy folks (including SoTL enthusiasts, I’ve sensed) to roll the eyes at the thought that lecture could be an effective teaching/learning tool.  Given that a lot of schools do not have the luxury of making every section a seminar-sized one, I’m glad there’s recently been a push to show that lectures are effective learning tools.

Thoughtful article, “There Is No Demand for Higher Education.” Key quote toward the start of the article, about the assumption that there is a huge demand for education (and hence the need for MOOCs, etc.):

[T]he more I think about MOOCs and consider the nature of this demand, the more I come to believe that there is no inherent demand for education, and definitely not for the education they’re peddling as a possible substitute for the traditional system of higher education.

Because the demand isn’t for education, per se. It’s for what we believe education can provide: a secure, stable life. This narrative may not even be true, as Freddie DeBoer argues in a recent post, but we cling to it anyway, because what choice do we have? If we instead believed that painting ourselves purple from head to toe had the same effect, we’d all be walking around looking like Barney the dinosaur.


Don’t Oversell Twitter

This post will not win me any friends, but it’s, like, just my opinion, man, so don’t sweat it. And rest assured, before you get snarky, I have read about and meditated on the topic.

Being a centrist, politically and professionally, one gets used to being considered either an event-horizon irritant or a reactionary grump. I like innovation, and I also flatter myself that I’m as up-to-date as anyone in the historical profession, but I also have this habit of pushing back against trends that are touted with a bit too much missionary zeal for my taste. Until I’m convinced that a) they are not just fads, and b) they deliver solid results, I tend to adopt a experimental approach to the trend in question.

All this being said, there are two trends that I am actually, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, deeply suspicious of: the (growing?) push to have tweeting considered service and scholarship, and the corresponding tendency to devalue the monograph as the gold standard of scholarly achievement. I’ll save the monograph conversation for another day, and focus on Twitter, which I use and semi-enjoy, though it seems designed to encourage short attention spans.

Before getting there, though, let me head off potential criticisms that I haven’t read “Twitter and the Locus of Research” (I have, I just fundamentally disagree with it. Much as I respect Jesse Stommel, I’m with Zachary Lesser on this one). Or that I’m ignoring the destabilizing flattened hierarchies that are essential to Twitter’s performance, and are a likewise essential feature of legitimate scholarship (I’m not; and no, it is one form of legitimate scholarship). Or that I need to read Dorothy Kim’s piece on #medievaltwitter or Maha Bali’s piece “On Twitter as Scholarship” (I have, and I like Kim’s parallels between Twitter and “medieval commentary practice.” But I agree with Elizabeth Eva Leach that “a medieval manuscript is not an iPad”).  Or that I’m ignorant of arguments that “Play is Critical Inquiry.” (I’m not, indeed I value the ludic aspects of scholarly endeavor; I just think play isn’t producing–or, phrased differently, something analogous to last year’s Atlantic article titled “Optimism is the enemy of action”).

IN SHORT, for those of my colleagues who find Twitter revolutionary and professionally significant, more power to you. I disagree with your premises, for the following four major reasons:

FIRST, and to me most important of all, Twitter really sucks as a means of conveying a complex, nuanced argument. And I mean, really sucks. I base this elegantly-phrased observation on the all-too-frequent occasions when I have seen a conversation start on Twitter, only to devolve into a kind of trench warfare defined by sarcasm, snark, and even ad hominems.

These doubts started during the Salaita Affair last year and were heightened with the crusades-prayer-breakfast debacle this February. Having studied the thousands of tweets that the crusades debate engendered, I can assure you of two things: first, most people, including scholars, were using Twitter as a way of verbally bludgeoning their opponents (Facebook wasn’t much better, though at least one could explain oneself better). Second, most people would tweet or retweet a single status or perhaps a link, often containing multiple logical fallacies, to a self-selecting audience that reinforced the original tweeter’s opinion. Seriously, the scholarly algorithmic group I was a part of had very little impact on the debate, if we just go by Twitter. Even if this example represents an aberration reserved for controversial occasions, much of Twitter strikes me as very much a public water-cooler kind of thing–extremely valuable, indeed I would say essential, for my development in many ways, but not a benchmark of scholarly accomplishment. If I was a review committee, I’d be skeptical too if I claimed chatting with my colleagues and friends counted as scholarship or service. Speaking of which…

SECOND, regarding Twitter-use as counting for scholarship and/or service. Setting aside the fact that this discussion is for those folks in tenure-track positions, it seems from what I’ve read that many review committees are only allowed to use physical copies to assess your performance. Now, the answer to that, of course, is that departments are behind the times, and need to change their protocols. But I don’t think the matter has been thought through. Let’s say that a review committee is allowed to consider your Twitter output for service and/or scholarship. Do you really expect people to scroll through 4-5 years’ worth of tweets, separating the “omg-my-dinner-is-awesome” tweets from those that are serious (say, about the dangers of smoking) but not in your contractual areas of expertise, the conversational rejoinders (“that’s awesome! congrats!” to news of a friend’s new book) from tweets that disseminate your or someone else’s new knowledge or contribution to professional issues? Would you think yourself put upon if you were told to prepare this information yourself? After all, your senior colleagues have six other committees they’re sitting on this term.

THIRD, the other thing you’d have to explain is how your analytics show worth-while impact, especially when Twitter kind of does that for you and the math isn’t always encouraging. Twitter defines “Impressions” as  the “number of times users saw the Tweet on Twitter.” While the tweet might contain a link to a column, a blog post, or an article, it doesn’t tell you if people actually read your piece. Twitter defines “engagement” as the “total number of times a user has interacted with a Tweet. This includes all clicks anywhere on the Tweet (including hashtags, links, avatar, username, and Tweet expansion), retweets, replies, follows, and favorites.” The “engagement rate” is the number of impressions divided by the number of engagements.

For folks who are nationally recognized columnists, scholars, or public figures, that rate could be fairly high. For most of us, it’s likely to be pretty low, or influenced by extraneous factors. Over the past week, for example, I tweeted a British Museum link about political cartoons from the Napoleonic Era that was seen 109 times, but engaged with 4 times (none resulted in a click on the link), for an engagement rate of 3.7%. A nostalgia photo of one of my first World War II books (not scholarly engagement, I would argue) received 151 impressions, 6 engagements (5 clicks), and a rate of 4%. My tweet about Wise resigning at the University of Illinois received 274 impressions, 9 engagements (six clicks), and a 3.3% rate. However, my positive tweet about Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner (I’m working on a post about the controversial aspects of the film) received 85,285 impressions simply because Crowe retweeted it. It only received 464 engagement points, though, resulting in a rate of 0.5%. And that tweet was not by any stretch of the imagination scholarly engagement.

Simply put, in this day and age of analytics, there really is no excuse for not engaging with the numbers, and the numbers for Twitter often don’t tell us what we want to hear. At the very least, it should force us to ask about metrics and assessment. How do you determine if a tweet is impactful or not, where is the bright line between significant and insignificant, how do you calculate significance based on aggregate numbers of tweets over time, and so on? You might reply that you can’t/shouldn’t quantify this kind of thing, but unfortunately quantification is the Zeitgeist of our time, and good luck convincing legislators of your point of view.

FOURTH, when I look at the most significant people in my fields, the ones whose teaching and scholarship truly set them apart, I find that they’re often absent from Twitter, or else tend to use it in a limited way. Now, this doesn’t prove anything, but to my mind it is suggestive. Suggestive that direct communication with friends and colleagues, an intense focus on teaching, and reading, researching, and writing long prose will tend to take you further as a professional and in your career than 140 characters at a time.

There is one particular instance where I believe Twitter use is scholarly service, and a very valuable one too. That is when kind colleagues tweet conferences that you cannot attend–Jonathan Hsy’s post about the 2014 Kalamazoo conference is a great analysis of what a powerful and useful tool it can be. As I recently pointed out, however, live tweeting a session is genuine work, and is not always the kind of experience I’m looking for in a given session. And even tweeting conferences has a set of distinct and serious limitations, as Boyda Johnstone eloquently described the previous July.

All the above reasons are why I prefer blogging to tweeting as a means of engagement. You can actually write on complex topics, at greater or lesser length as you choose, combining the best of old-school and cutting-edge methods. The Clerk of Oxford’s May 20 post on blogging resonates with me on many levels for these reasons. My nearly-6000-word piece on the crusades had what little impact it did precisely because it used the space afforded by the blog to dive into the complexities of the topic. But even with the crusades piece, and this I think is very significant, Facebook was a far more powerful distribution tool than Twitter. It was shared about 30 times on Twitter, and over 500 times on Facebook–and this imbalance seems typical of many articles and blog posts. However, Facebook, an ostensibly private forum, seems to not to receive the kind of attention given to Twitter.

Now, all that being said, I do think Twitter is an outstanding tool for communicating news, especially in links that take you to longer pieces. I also believe in Twitter as a great pedagogical tool, one that i will probably try to use this coming term (I went a more GIS route this spring). I agree with Jeffrey J. Cohen’s tweet and the responses that it received that Twitter can help you develop concision of expression. It is also excellent for exchanging short ideas with absent friends and colleagues, and for having great conversations that can be the genesis of new ideas and projects. What this all amounts to, I think, is that Twitter is a great (but not the only) way for keeping current in your field. But keeping current should be expected of a serious professional as a matter of course, and not awarded a gold star as fulfilling a service requirement. Where this leaves the criteria for service and engagement I’m not sure, but until someone convinces me that I’m wrong about the four points above, I’ll keep using Twitter in the limited, “unimaginative” way I do…

Hey, the world would be boring if everyone agreed, right?





The Medieval Use of Christ Disputing the Doctors

This isn’t an analytical post, but rather a question sparked by a tweet from Ballandalus, here. The subject, Paolo Veronese’s Christ Among the Doctors in the Temple (c.1550), is at the Museo Nacional del Prado. My question for all my medieval friends out there is this: how was this Gospel incident interpreted and applied in the Middle Ages? More specifically, what lessons did medieval scholars and theologians draw from it–was it given an anti-Semitic bent, a subversive, challenge-authority bent, or perhaps simply used as a sign to demonstrate the veracity of Christianity?

The picture just got me wondering, and I realized that I don’t really know the answer to the question. Any help would be appreciated!

New medieval digital projects

There have been some great digital projects livening up the scene in this past week.

  • Christian Schwaderer’s Database of the Letters of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085)2014. It’s a pretty cool project, laying out the archives as well as the letters themselves, and, in a feature that I think is especially neat, the ability to visualize the networks from selected correspondence.
  • Linguistic Geographies: The Gough Map of Great Britain. This is how to do a digital mapping project, with what seems to be a very smooth engine, and the ability to search medieval and modern place names, as well as to just browse the map itself.
  • Mapping the Medieval Countryside: Properties, Places, and People. A very welcome and over-due digitization and analysis of the Inquisitions Post Mortem. Currently they have fifteenth-century inquisitions up, though there are still some kinks to work out with the website itself.
  • The Bodleian finally has its own digital library site, Digital Bodleian. Some of the medieval manuscripts include MS Douce d.6, Tristan Romances in Anglo-Norman Verse, and MS Rawl. B.475 Norman Conquest of Ireland; poems. There

And a couple individual manuscripts highlighted in the Twitterverse this past week:

  • A manuscript from the Vatican Library, whose digital collections keep growing. In this case, Nikephoros Blemmydes, Epitome logica. I suppose at some point I’ll have to polish up my Greek, but after scanning this manuscript I think I’ve been lucky so far…Still not as bad as some Merovingian manuscripts I’ve seen.
  • The British Library digitized Additional MS 35166, a lovely Apocalypse from the second half of the thirteenth century.

Exciting things keep happening in medieval studies!

Medieval and Military History with a Pinch of Attitude

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