Guest Post: Review of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture

Guest poster Evelyne Martial is a retired attorney. She received her JD from the Cincinnati College of Law. She is currently enrolled in the Gender and Cultural Studies Program at Simmons College.

EHIGH7751_418744arly on a cold, frigid morning in Washington, D.C., my husband and I stood at the tail end of a long, winding line to get into the Museum of African American History and Culture. It was too cold to walk around to view the architecture so we hustled over to the entry line as soon as we exited the cab. As we waited, clutching our prized full-page sized passes, we watched a line of yellow school buses deposit kids from elementary, middle, and high schools into the bright frigid air. Their peals of laughter and rambunctious playfulness resisted the cold air. Their faces, hues of browns and tans bundled in colorful puff jackets, were filled with excitement.  In line, a group of about six or seven women of African descent stood behind us. This group was from Los Angeles, California and had centered their annual get together around the visit to the Museum. They also were uncomfortably cold yet visibly excited about being here, particularly at this moment of our political lives. I wanted to find out more about them, but because it was so cold or the line was already so long at 10:00 a.m., the Museum staff diverted half of our line to another entryway. We lost contact with them and the children as we sped down the plaza to a much shorter line and before we knew it we were inside the Museum. Continue reading

Guide to Studying for Comps

keep-calm-and-study-for-exams-86Comps, orals, qualifying exams…no matter what you call them, they are a source of angst for many (US) PhD students. Expectations can vary from one department to the next. Some programs have set reading lists, and a process that takes much of the guess work out of preparing for these exams. Other programs expect the student examinee to take a more proactive role. The advice herein is not exhaustive, but is geared primarily towards students who in this later situation. As you prepare, remember that thousands of PhDs have successfully passed through this process, and you can too. You just need to put in the work. Continue reading

Books in the Early U.S. Survey

booksI’m teaching two sections of the first half of the U.S. survey this semester (which goes to 1877 here at BYU). I taught two sections of the same last semester. After nearly a five-year break from the classroom as I researched and wrote a dissertation, it was fun to be back in the classroom: to work with students, take a step back from the specifics of my own research, reflect on the broader themes and developments of early American history,  and to update my lecture/discussion notes and outlines with the vast amounts of excellent scholarship produced over the course of that five-year period.

I’ve changed quite a bit in the content, focus, and structure of the course, and updated both assignments and class policies to be more student friendly (fewer lectures, more discussions, making more effective use of technology, and experimenting with unessays, to name just a few such changes). One thing that has not changed, however, is the amount of reading I assign. In addition to their textbook, students read widely from primary sources (this semester features significantly more sources by and about women, thanks in large part to Sara Damiano’s January post here at The Junto). They also read four scholarly books over the course of the semester.  Continue reading

Guest Post: “Growing Your Wolf Pack: Why Collaboration is ‘Worth It’ in Historical Scholarship”

Guest poster Neil Oatsvall is a History and Social Science Instructor at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Environment and History, Agricultural History, Essays in History, and the edited collection Proving Grounds (University of Washington Press, 2015). His book manuscript, “Atomic Environments: Nuclear Technologies, the Natural World, and Policymaking, 1945-1960,” is under advanced contract with the NEXUS series of the University of Alabama Press. His Twitter handle is @DctrNO. 

Return guest poster Vaughn Scribner is an Assistant Professor of Early American History at the University of Central Arkansas. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, the Journal of Early American History, Early American Studies, the Journal of Social History, Urban History, Agricultural History, and the edited volume, Order and Civility in the Early Modern Chesapeake. His Twitter handle is @VScrib86.

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“Shipping the Sugar,” from William Clark, Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, in which are Represented the Process of Sugar Making…From Drawings Made by William Clark, During a Residence of Three Years in the West Indies (London, 1823).

While co-authoring in the sciences or social sciences is the norm (and often expected), many scholars in the humanities tend to practice the Lone Wolf strategy. We huddle in our den, surrounded by piles of books, cultivating the nagging fear that someone might be researching something too similar to us. But maybe it’s time to move on from our seclusion. Maybe, in the words of Alan Garner from The Hangover, it’s time to grow your wolf pack (link might be slightly NSFW, as it’s from a rated R film). Continue reading

Guest Post: Janine Yorimoto Boldt, “Looking at Early American (Art) History”

Janine Yorimoto Boldt is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. She is writing a dissertation that explores the social function of domestic portraiture in Virginia between Bacon’s Rebellion and the American Revolution.

1956-561“Why should a historian read your dissertation? How can portraits tell us something new, rather than confirm what historians already know?”

The historian on my dissertation committee posed these questions during my prospectus colloquium. They haunt me when I sit in the archive and now it hangs over my head while I write. These questions only enhanced the feeling of the disciplinary divide between art history and history that I already observed. One of my comprehensive exam fields was early American cultural history. Reading early American history, I noticed how few historians engage art historical scholarship. Usually, the art histories are relegated to the footnotes as an obligatory afterthought. For example, after mentioning the fact that so-and-so had a portrait a footnote reads, “for more information on portraiture in the colonial period, see these [three sources here].”

To be fair, in the field of art history, there are few recent monographs that focus on early American art, and fewer that are object-centric. Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011) and Jennifer Roberts’ Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (2014) are recent and excellent studies of early art that place the object at the center of their analyses. Several cultural historians write about artists or write histories that revolve around art objects, but they tend to circle around the object instead of engaging in deep material and visual analysis. Biographical information about producers and consumers take center stage, rather than foreground the art as an agent. In the field of early American art, especially the colonial period (and on artists other than John Singleton Copley), there is a lot more work to be done.

When asked about current trends in historical scholarship, a recent visiting historian on campus told graduate students that we need to engage more with visuals. When they said this I was thrilled! I agree! Then, they said, “but not how to do visual analysis. That’s not important.” Why not? Why do so many historians dismiss the importance of the visual? Surely images can function as more than “wallpaper” and portraits can be used as more than illustrative of a historical figure’s likeness. At another event, after presenting an argument based on visual analysis of a woman’s portrait, a historian told me to “stick to evidence” from documents. However, this woman left virtually no archival evidence. All that she left to posterity was her portrait, and an unusual one at that. Do I not have an obligation as an historian to interpret this piece of historical evidence to the best of my ability in order to tell her story? Doesn’t the portrait count AS evidence in and of itself?

Certainly there are some disciplinary divisions in training and method. However, as the humanities become increasingly interdisciplinary, I hope that the divide between history and art history closes a bit and more historians choose to engage with art. We live in a hyper-visual world and historians can help students learn to think critically about historical images to prepare them for critically engaging with contemporary media. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for incorporating art into history classes and scholarship:

Discuss images in class. I have seen many historians use PowerPoints with images in lectures and presentation. Do more than use the images as simple illustrations. Pick a key image and dissect it as you would a primary source document. Ask questions like:

  • Where was it displayed? What does that say about visibility the intended audience?
  • How was it meant to be seen? Is it a small image meant to be held close? Was it part of a set of images? Was it a large statement piece?
  • Who made it? Who commissioned it? Why?
  • What can the image tell us about this event/person/culture that written documents cannot?

Think about assigning images as primary documents. In assignments that involve analyzing a primary source, consider using a image as an option. Or, consider pairing an image and a document.

Think critically about whether the image you include is appropriate. Are you using a images from the 1850s to illustrate an event in the 1770s? Include an image caption that references, at minimum, the date of creation and the artist. Dates matter!

Use images as evidence. Images are forms of material culture and are cultural texts. If your research brings you to images, try to do more than include them as “wallpaper” illustrations. Images are material, they are constitutive of culture, and visuality is formative.

As an American Studies graduate student, and an undergraduate with a double major in art history and history, I have taken a number of “traditional” history courses. Except for material culture seminars, I have not seen images used widely in the history classes. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am interested in how other disciplines engage with art. Do you have any other suggestions for utilizing images? Do you regularly use images or assign art history texts?

Guest Post: Questions About the Illicit Slave Trade, State Auctions, and Urban Infrastructure [Cross-Posted]

Todd Burst is an independent scholar who is researching and blogging about the eighteenth century British-African slave trade and the development of capitalism. He is currently writing about how Fante Africans on the Gold Coast vicariously influenced the role of the British state in commerce through the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. He also runs the Roads to Modernity blog, where he reviews current writings about the history of slavery and capitalism, and occasionally publishes some of his own works. This guest post is cross-posted from his blog.

1_3 PAR20881410_Page_1.jpgIn Antebellum America, Southern municipalities generated revenue by confiscating and reselling illicit slaves through public auctions.[1] In 1807, Congress prohibited the international slave trade, a year later, Louisiana followed suite, but this did not stop the trade. An illicit trade from Africa across the Atlantic continued to supply the America South with slaves. Illegal slaves were forfeited to the state. The Sheriff’s department placed these slaves in prison to await resale to the public. These findings raise questions about the role of the state in the slave trade, property laws, municipal revenues, and contributions of the sale of slaves at “property auctions” to modern city infrastructures.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Spencer McBride, Benjamin Rush and the Divine Right of Republics

We are thrilled to have another guest post from Spencer McBride, a historian and editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. You can read Spencer’s previous two posts here and here. More importantly, you can order his hot-off-the-press book, Pulpit & Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (UVA Press) here. You can look forward to a review and Q&A later this month. -BP

pulpit-and-nationIn researching and writing my book, Pulpit & Nation, I became keenly interested in the religious language employed by participants in the ratification debates of 1787-88. Not only did it illuminate the role of religion and clergymen in the politics of Revolutionary America, but it seemed particularly relevant to the almost canonical way in which so many twenty-first century politicians and pundits view the Constitution. Of course, when—or if—these individuals ever consult that document’s history, they rarely bother to question what political motivations drove so many of the seemingly religious expressions made by early national leaders. And there are many such statements. Yet, amid the numerous examples of Federalists and Anti-Federalists employing (and exploiting) providential language and Old Testament Biblicism in arguing for ratification, one example stands out as particularly complex in its motives and implications: the argument Benjamin Rush made for ratification in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. Continue reading