Trials and Tribulations of Writing while Sleeping

iphone notes screencapA few weeks ago, I dropped my iPhone in water. If you were wondering, those things do not float. As I pulled the phone out and dried it as best I could, all I could think about was my dissertation. I was in the throes of finishing a chapter, and I had a lot of really good ideas on that phone. In this post, I want to explain why my phone has become so important to my scholarly life. Continue reading

On Social Media Feeds for Historical Organizations and History Departments

TwitterFBTurns out that after several stints running social media accounts for different institutions, I have feelings about what works and what doesn’t. What follows is a prescriptive ramble of things that historical organizations and history departments should be doing on Twitter and Facebook, with the understanding that there is a lot that I’m not covering, such as general Twitter etiquette, blogs, Tumblr, podcasts, or other social media topics we’ve already covered here. I’ll leave it to you in the comments to discuss these issues further—and to point out which additional accounts strike you as models to follow. Continue reading

Announcing the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History

Seminar series have been a popular facet of the early American history culture across the country, from Philadelphia and New York across to the Rocky Mountains and the Bay Area. In this post, we’re introducing another regional seminar to the mix, based around Missouri and the greater St Louis area (extending into central Illinois, and interest from eastern Kansas, southern Iowa, or northern Arkansas is most welcome). We’re hoping to foster a sense of community among those working on early American topics in the region, and to provide a supportive environment for graduate students and faculty to test out preliminary findings of their research. Continue reading

The Problem with Big Books; Or, Alan Taylor’s Biggest Sin

[Headlines are supposed to draw readers, right?]

TaylorOne of the first things I did after finishing my dissertation a couple of months back (other than sleeping for an entire week, of course), was reading Alan Taylor’s latest tome, An Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1776-1832 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), which recently won the Pulitzer Prize. (One could argue that Taylor’s biggest sin, other than the one I’m about to discuss, is hogging all the major book awards.) As one would expect given Taylor’s track record, I was floored by the book’s exhaustive research and lyrical prose. I made a mental note that this would be a great book to assign to students. Now that I’m prepping for this fall, when I’ll be teaching a Jeffersonian America course, I gave the idea more serious consideration. However, I soon realized the biggest problem, which more seasoned teachers probably already know.

The book is just too big.

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Herb Sloan’s Contributions to Scholarship on Jeffersonian America

Last Tuesday, May 13, the Columbia University Seminar on Early American History and Culture and the Department of History hosted an evening in honor of Professor Herb Sloan of Barnard College. Herb, who is retiring this spring after 28 years as a member of Barnard’s history faculty, was the guest of honor at an evening commemorating both his contributions to the field of early American history, as well as a roundtable discussion on “Jeffersonian America.” Continue reading

Grade Inflation or Compression?

Back in December, the Dean of Undergraduate Education at Harvard was quoted from a meeting of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences saying, “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.” This statistic was highly shocking to the general public (or at least the general media). Yale itself moved last year to address the problem when it turned out that 62% of grades given to undergraduates in a two-year period were A-minuses. Just a few weeks ago, the Teaching Center at Yale hosted a day-long seminar entitled, Are All Yale Students ‘A’ Students? A Forum on Grading.” Most recentlyRebecca Schuman published a piece on grading at Slate entitled, “Confessions of a Grade Inflator.” However, rather than only seeing what has happened as the inflation of individual students’ grades, we should also see it–from the instructor’s perspective–as a compressing of the grading scale itself. Doing so reveals multiple repercussions for both students and faculty that the individualized, student-centered notion of “grade inflation” misses. We need to keep in mind that grade inflation or compression doesn’t just benefit unworthy students; it actually has negative effects on both students and faculty, which should be the real causes for wanting to address the problem.

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Commencement in Early America: Pausing at the Portal

Columbia College Commencement, 1818This is commencement season in the United States. On weekend mornings, college towns around the country are being beset by billowing clouds of begowned bachelors, trailing various family members and friends in their newly distinguished wakes. University neighborhoods are full of rented trucks and vans. Sidewalks are littered with furniture. People are swarming into auditoriums, sports stadiums, gymnasiums, or (as in the case of some of my Texas cousins) livestock arenas to hear more or less famous people dispense advice for adulthood. And to me, it’s all very, very exciting.

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