Archives for February 2012

An undergraduate experiment in digital humanities, part I

We’re into week five of my Women in America: The Western Experience course, which means it’s time for students to start to get serious about the final project. Since some Clutter Museum readers showed interest in how the project progresses, I thought I’d provide an update.

To review: my 40 undergraduates will be building an online exhibition about the history of Idaho women’s amateur arts and crafts.  I’m leaving the platform open, but I suspect the choice will come down to WordPress or Omeka, and I’m guessing the students will choose WordPress, though who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise me.  Because all the students in the course have iPads, I’m encouraging them to optimize the exhibit for that screen size and resolution.

Yesterday, student groups picked their topics from a list of arts and crafts categories, all of which are represented by artifacts in storage at the local museum:

  • basketry
  • wedding dresses
  • lacework
  • plein air painting
  • beadwork
  • taxidermy
  • ornaments and wreaths made from human hair
  • quilts
  • needlework

There are eight groups, but I put nine possible topics on the list so that the final group to select a category still could choose between two of them.  I can’t believe no one opted to study the Victorian human hair ornaments.  I mean, seriously–one of the artifacts available for study and interpretation is a family tree made from intricately woven hair from each represented family member.  What’s not to love?

Taxidermy was the last topic picked.  The group seemed a bit disappointed in its topic, so I shared a bit of history with them, and now they’re pretty excited about it.  Women + 19th-century U.S. + taxidermy = awesome wackiness.  And god only knows what they’re going to find in the equation of women + 20th-century Idaho + taxidermy.  I’m hoping for some steampunk.

Students will be heading to the museum to photograph artifacts on display there, and to museum storage to photograph and research additional objects.  The museum’s curatorial registrar came to talk to the class yesterday about her job, the basics of artifact conservation, guidelines for photographing objects on exhibit, and the rules for viewing the artifacts in storage and using photographs of them online.  She emphasized that, because of security concerns, the first rule of Museum Storage Club is that you do not talk about Museum Storage on social media or post photos of it or disclose its location.  Students found that secrecy fascinating, I think.

Her talk definitely heightened some students’ sense of adventure in the project.  Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone, and certainly not twentysomething undergrad, so excited to go try to photograph scraps of 100-year-old lacework in a dimly lit environment.  I’m hoping they maintain this excitement throughout the semester.  I’ll keep you posted. . .

Add the Words, Idaho

Everyday life in Boise is similar to that of many of the places I’ve lived or visited. There are ridiculous numbers of big box stores and chain restaurants, late-1970s suburbs featuring ranch-aspiring homes of mediocre construction and design, sprawling new suburbs, a downtown that appears to be on the upswing, too many crappy supermarkets to count, a few historic buildings, a regional university, a couple dog parks, several commercial strips that appear to be caught in the 1970s, and some nice hiking in the hills on the edge of town.

As long as one doesn’t leave town much, it’s pretty easy to forget that Boise is more considerably more isolated geographically.  In fact, it’s the most isolated city of its size in the United States; our nearest “big city” is 350 miles away–and it’s Salt Lake.  Let me put it this way for my urban readers: if I want to make a Trader Joe’s run, I need to drive 320 miles to Bend, Oregon.

Even though its geographic isolation is significant, Boise is even more dramatically isolated politically from the rest of the state.  That doesn’t mean the city is a hotbed of liberalism; I read someplace that about 30 percent of the students at Boise State are Mormon, and they tend to be politically more conservative than the average bear, and we have several active military and veteran students as well, and while I’ve found them to be more politically dynamic than the Mormon students, they are yet another reminder that I’m not in Davis anymore.  (My sense is that students here are more likely to have fought in the oil wars than to bicycle against them.)  Still, as long as I don’t pay too much attention to the news when the state legislature is in session, I can keep my blood pressure relatively stable, as politics in Boise itself are decidedly moderate.

Friday was an exception. Friday I was slapped hard by the realization that I moved to a very, very conservative state.

Idaho’s Human Rights Act protects people from employment and housing discrimination regardless of race, gender, or religion, but LGBT people in Idaho can be fired or refused housing because they’re gay or transgender. On Friday, a state senator, motivated by a group (and growing movement) called Add the Words, Idaho, proposed a bill to the State Affairs Committee to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Human Rights Act.  The Idaho Statesman relates what happened next:

In the committee’s narrow view, this proposal didn’t even merit real consideration. Friday’s hearing was a “print hearing” — when a committee decides whether to introduce a bill. A printed bill becomes a piece of the session’s public record — a document all Idahoans can read and judge for themselves.

Legislative committees sometimes print bills to advance the discussion of an important issue. On Friday, discrimination didn’t make the cut. The State Affairs Committee had neither the time nor the empathy. Committee members couldn’t dismiss this idea or its proponents quickly enough.

Image from the Add the Words homepage on February 12
Later that day, I joined a couple dozen Add The Words folks in the Senate gallery.  We sat quietly, though it’s clear our presence made the Republican senators on the State Affairs Committee nervous, and there were both Capitol security guards and State police positioned just outside the gallery door once the Senate realized who was gathering in the seats.
Idaho’s existing Human Rights Act bans employment and housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion or disability. The “Add The Words” bill would have added sexual orientation and gender identity. “There’s lots of groups who don’t have that ability as well, so the issue becomes, where does it stop? Where do those special categories end?” McGee asked.
McGee said his constituents in Canyon County don’t support the change. He acknowledged that discrimination does occur against gays and lesbians in Idaho, saying, “For me to tell you that this doesn’t exist would be naive.” But, he said, “I think what we did today is say we don’t believe that this is the right way to deal with that.” Asked the right way, he said, “Continued education,” and added, “We say no to legislation all the time.”

Add the Words supporters told me that in conversations with individual senators, they have also been told that there just isn’t time this legislative hearing for such a bill.

That’s hilarious, considering the session I sat through on Friday lasted all of 55 minutes, and most of it was dedicated to apotheosizing Abraham Lincoln.  There was time enough for not one but two Christian prayers, and for a lengthy reading of some things Lincoln said–including his opinion on banknotes.  We heard, of course, about how he freed the slaves, but also about how he turned all his enemies into his friends.  (Um. . . wasn’t he assassinated?  Seriously–I wish the Senate would post the text of the prayer and readings on its website; it was a piece of ahistorical work if ever there was one.*)  There was time enough for someone to sing “God Bless the U.S.A.”:

I’d thank my lucky stars,
to be livin here today.
’Cause the flag still stands for freedom,
and they can’t take that away.

I was choking on the irony.

There was once nice moment during the session, but I missed it because we were sitting at an angle that obscured our view of the senate president’s desk: Senator Nicole LeFavour of Boise, Idaho’s only openly gay state legislator, walked up to the dais and placed a sticky note on it.  The note was a physical reminder of the thousands of sticky notes sent from all over the state and posted in the Capitol in support of Add the Words.  LeFavour’s crossing into the well of the senate chamber was a serious breach of protocol, and it appeared to send some of the Republican senators into a confab in the senate antechamber. But what could they do? Censure the legislature’s only openly gay member on the day Republicans once again denied equal protection under the law to gays?

I’m a bigger fan than ever of LeFavour, who during the session also asked her fellow senators to recognize the Add the Words people in the gallery by applauding for us.  It was an uncomfortable moment, I think, for everyone in the chamber and gallery.

I want to emphasize that, unlike in Washington state and California this week, the issue under consideration was not gay marriage, which was forbidden in Idaho by a state constitutional amendment in 2006.  We’re talking about basic civil protections. Regardless of what Senator McGee believes, adding protections for LGBT people isn’t going to establish a slippery slope by which the state will be forced to add countless “special categories” of people to the act.  This is a group of people who face significant discrimination and even physical danger in the state–discrimination that McGee himself recognized in the Spokesman Review article–and they need and deserve legal protection from discrimination and abuse.

I’ll be writing respectful letters to the senators on the State Affairs Committee, as well as to my own (Democratic) senator–who, based on what I heard from Add the Words leaders, has been lukewarm to the bill, even though he wrote me a note last month assuring me he supports it.   As Senator McGee said, it’s clear Idahoans are in need of “continued education.”  As an Idaho resident, historian, professor, and LGBT ally, I’m happy to provide such education to our legislators.**

One more thing. . . Would you pretty please “Like” the Add the Words page on Facebook?  Every little bit of support is appreciated.

* If any historian is going to be OK with lay public interpretations of American history, it’s me.  Seriously, I’m fascinated by such attempts to construct both hegemonic and alternative narratives.  But in this case the irony was too big, the stakes too high.

**  I’ll be even happier when federal laws extend full civil rights to LGBT folks, and I can write about how these Idaho senators were as much on the wrong side of history as those who opposed civil rights for women and people of color.

A confession, with roses

At this point in winter last year, Boise was cold, cold, cold.  I recall still being in a California frame of mind and heading out to prune the rosebushes in late January or early February, Sunset climate zones be damned.

It started to snow.

As much as I love my job here, that moment likely represents the emotional nadir of my life in Boise.  I hadn’t found truly fresh produce for months and I had major cabin fever from what I’m told was a freakish and unusually persistent snow. As the flakes began to fall between the blades of my garden clippers, I confess I thought, “What the fuck have I done?”  (And no, I wasn’t referring to any potential injury to the roses.)

This afternoon Lucas invited me outside to build fairy houses, a popular pastime at his school for hippies’ children and grandchildren. My iPhone told me it was 45 degrees, but it was sunny and warm enough that we could go outside without jackets to collect bark, dried grasses, leaves, twigs, and stones.

While scouring the yard for fey construction material, I noted that all three of the rosebushes in the front yard sported reddish-purple new stems, and a few even had leaves on them. There’s a lone broccoli plant that survived not only the neighborhood mammals last fall, but also the coldest days of this winter. Snow remains on the local mountains, but the foothills are clear of it. Certainly there will be more snow later this month or in March, but for now I can say that I’m content with Boise at this moment.

Since the wine won’t ice up the sidewalk this year, I’m pouring libations to Boreas and Zephyros–and pretending that this isn’t a freak weather year brought to us by global climate change.  I hope you’re having a good winter, too.

All manifestoed out, part II: admitting graduate students edition

As promised, here’s another mini-rant, or rather series-of-questions-whose-answers-would-likely-lead-me-to-mega-rant.  And with this one, I’d really like your assistance.

Because I’m one of only two faculty in my department whose specialty is officially “public history”—mind you, we all practice one form of it or another, but I have been anointed by my position description—pretty much all the applications for admission to our Master’s in Applied Historical Research program come across my desk.  Usually I just write a few notes explaining why I’m recommending we admit the candidate, admit hir provisionally, or decline to admit hir, and then that’s the last I see of the application.  I also don’t get to see my colleagues’ comments on the application, as that might unduly bias me.

Occasionally, however, an application comes back to me when individual faculty make conflicting recommendations about admission.  So, for example, I might say we should admit someone, but two or three of my fellow faculty recommend the opposite. In many departments, a majority “no” vote might be the end of the line for an application, but our graduate program director gives me (or anyone else whose vote differs, I’m assuming) the opportunity to reconsider the application, to change my vote or take a stand or something in between.

At such moments, I get to see the admissions recommendations and, more importantly, the comments of my fellow evaluators. And often I’m in complete agreement with what they’re saying about the application, but I still want to recommend the opposite of what they do.

I’m not sure why, but it took me a year and a half in the department to realize that our occasionally differing visions about who should be admitted to the program stem from our–wait for it–differing visions about the program’s capabilities and mission.

My friends, we lack collective clarity.*

See, we have two programs: a traditional M.A. in history, and the M.A.H.R.  The department’s web page describes the programs using almost exactly the same language, differentiating between the two only by saying the M.A. will prepare students for work in academic settings at all levels (by which I assume we mean high school teaching or the occasional adjunct gig) and the M.A.H.R. prepares students for careers outside academic settings. Programmatically, the degree requirements differ very little, with M.A.H.R. students taking one additional seminar in public history—but when I taught that course last spring, there were several M.A. students in it, too.  The M.A.H.R. students can substitute “skills” courses (like GIS or video editing) for the foreign language courses required of the M.A. students. The M.A.H.R. students are also allowed, and encouraged, to take more internship credits.

If you’ve been around the history graduate program block lately, maybe you’re reading this as I do: the M.A.H.R. program is about helping students take very specific steps toward getting jobs.  The M.A. program. . .maybe not so much.  I don’t work with the M.A. students much, so I’m not sure what they want out of the program, but the M.A.H.R. students often have very specific goals: to open a historical consulting firm, to go into museum exhibit development, to make a documentary film, to apprentice themselves in a historic preservation office.

My latest (implied) rant took the form, then, of a memo to the graduate program coordinator in which I asked these questions (and provided my own tentative answers):

  • Should the students applying to the M.A.H.R. program have the same preparation and/or potential as students applying to the M.A. program?
  • If not, should we differentiate the application process for the M.A. and M.A.H.R. programs?
  • If we differentiate the applications, is a 15-20 page, traditional academic essay the best way to gauge preparedness for the M.A.H.R. program? If not, what is?
  • If we do away with the academic essay requirement for M.A.H.R. students, how will they demonstrate their ability to work with primary and secondary sources?

Here’s the thing: I read a lot of mediocre writing in those applications, from both M.A. and M.A.H.R. applicants. Many of the objections from my colleagues stem from applicants’ bad writing or poor research skills. And in my own classes, I’m a pretty unforgiving taskmaster when it comes to writing.  So I’m not suggesting that we lower to the admissions bar for M.A.H.R. applicants.  Yet maybe we need to acknowledge that public historians’ work embraces a huge spectrum; some public historians might find themselves addressing K-6 students, while others work primarily with policymakers.  On the job, some will rarely write anything longer than an exhibit label.  Others will need to write eloquently in grant proposals.  Many will need to do both.

I suspect that many of the applicants who can’t write a good enough academic essay to be admitted to a traditional academic programs can still engage in critical and creative thought–it’s just that the essay isn’t the best way for them to exhibit these skills.  Someone who is a good fit for our M.A. program might not be a good fit for the M.A.H.R. program, and vice versa.  I suspect we faculty have been treating applicants as if they’re applying to the same program.

The grad program coordinator told me to bring my questions and concerns to the faculty at a department meeting.  Our faculty meetings are relatively fleet things, thank goodness, but it also means I need to find a way to encourage people to either (a) coalesce around a unified vision in, oh, 10-15 minutes or (b) reflect on what they think the difference between the two programs should be and share their individual visions with me before the next meeting.

Of course, before I do that, I’d like some information from other programs.  I’ll be scouring departmental web pages and perhaps contacting some folks, but in the meantime, here’s what I’d like from you, dear readers:

If you teach in, or pursued a degree within, a humanities or social science department that offers to graduate students an “academic” track and a “practical” or “non-academic career” track, how do you differentiate between applicants to the two programs? Do you require essays or something else? Do you require interviews? Do you expect applicants to propose specific projects? Do you ask recommenders to comment on the applicants’ career potential instead of just their academic performance? How can you tell which applicants might be a better fit for one degree track over another?

Please share your experiences in the comments.  I know many of you maintain your anonymity on the interwebz, so you can either obfuscate a few details, comment anonymously, or you can e-mail me privately at trillwing -at- gmail -dot- com.

Many thanks!


* . . .in an academic department. A stunning revelation, I know.

Photo by vlasta2, and used under a Creative Commons license.