Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Closing time

I've decided that it's time for Mode for Caleb to come to an end.

That should come as little surprise to anyone who has stopped by in recent months. This summer my posts dropped precipitously, thanks mainly to the cross-country move. July had one post; June had four paltry ones. I had hoped that I could revive the blog in August, but other time commitments have made it hard even to read blogs, much less to maintain this one.

I have very good reasons to think that this pace would not change anytime in the next several months. In the first place, since I'll be teaching full-time for the first time, I'm eager to focus on my new courses and my new students. And there's another even more exciting and important reason why the blog has been slowing to a halt. In just about eight weeks, my wife and I will become first-time parents. The incredible adventure that parenting promises to be has already begun. And I know the ride will only accelerate once the baby arrives, right around the time I'm grading final exams.

Of course, it's not that blogging necessarily takes up a lot of time; I've always been an infrequent poster by the standards of most bloggers. But psychologically, with parenthood and the new job on the horizon, lately I've been feeling a need to find something to throw overboard, as it were. Blogging isn't easy to cut loose, even temporarily, but of all the things on my plate right now, it's the least difficult to set aside. And instead of turning the blog into a tedious series of silences, it seems to make more sense to stop blogging altogether--writing and reading--until a new kind of normalcy sets in.

But I am not--absolutely not--renouncing blogging altogether. There have been times when I have been tempted to shut down the blog because of blog fatigue. This is not one of those times. There have been other times when, like every junior scholar in the blogosphere, I have wondered about how to weigh the professional risks and rewards of blogging. This is not one of those times. In fact, I agree with Dan Cohen that it's a great time for academics to start blogging.

So I'm certain that my moratorium on blogging will not be indefinite. At the same time, I can't predict right now when it will end. Besides, since the end of this year will find me in such a different place than I was when this blog started, I think it makes sense, whenever I do return, to start a new blog, at another address. Until then, take care and thanks for stopping by. I'm extremely grateful for the exchanges and friendships that Mode for Caleb has made possible for me, and I hope that even an extended sabbatical will not mean that they must come to an end.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


History Carnival XXXVII

Mode for Caleb is pleased to present, for your edification and amusement, the 37th Edition of the World Famous History Carnival, which features the best recent posts from the history blogosphere.

When S. J. Redman reflected on a prescient 1907 article by Franz Boas, Oneman responded at Savage Minds with some further thoughts on the history of museums at the turn of the century.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has been churning out fascinating posts all summer; several of them were nominated, but the most mentioned was "Jesse Jackson Jr.'s Civil War."

This month The Little Professor's Madlibs version of a "First Person" essay was picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Which leaves us to wonder, what is the answer to #8? My cat seems as recalcitrant as ever, so it can't be "B" ... The LP also has an interesting review of William St. Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period.

At The Rhine River, Nathanael D. Robinson takes issue with Voltaire's famous quip about the Holy Roman Empire.

At Revise and Dissent, Alun Salt reviews Hugh Bowden's Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle, and draws some interesting comparisons between the role of religion in Athenian politics and modern-day religious fundamentalism.

George McClellan is universally scorned by Civil War historians, yet he was universally loved by his troops. Walking the Berkshires suggests that historians should take the troops' opinions more seriously, if only to better understand McClellan's complex personality. (If this is your first time over at the excellent Walking the Berkshires, the author, Tim Abbott, recommends this post on an anachronistic plant at the Gettysburg battlefield site as one of his finest.)

Tom Hanks is ... James Madison. The American Presidents Blog wonders if it might be coming soon to a theater near you. It's a movie that Ed Darrell would probably be happy to see.

Martin Rundkvist reports on an exhibit of two 17th-century warships in Stockholm, and adds a strange but true tale about a survivor from one of the ship's battles.

Joe Kissell details the quasi-historical silliness that is E Clampus Vitus.

"A Pyramid? In Bosnia?" The title says it all.

The History Carnival is technically meant to spotlight either posts on history, or posts by historians. Derek Catsam's "Long Critique of a Silly Article" gets in primarily thanks to the second category. So does Mark Grimsley's impassioned post on the rights of civilians in wartime: "The Sacred Oath is Shattered."

Sergey Romanov presents more chapters from his ongoing series on what the Soviets knew about Auschwitz--and when--starting with Part IV.

Tim Enloe concludes a series of posts on Protestant historiography.

Ever heard of Anthony Hall, "King" of England? I hadn't either, until Mark Brady filled me in.

Ned Lamont's primary victory over Joe Lieberman takes Jeffrey Kimball back to 1968 ...

Tim Burke, who has been live-blogging his library-cataloging, pauses to ruminate on the importance of reputation capital in the hierarchy of academic norms.

With a name like Drive By Truckers, it's got to be good. Or so says Scott McLemee.

Natalie Bennett takes the blogosphere on a cycle tour of the historic architecture in Hastings, Winchelsea and Rye.

How can you learn more about a local area's history? Diamond Geezer says the signs are all around you.

Roy Booth at Early Modern Whale tours "Another Literary Church."

Finally, a certain beer company believes its namesake to be "Samuel Adams: Brewer Patriot." They won't be happy to learn from J. L. Bell that a more accurate slogan would be, "Samuel Adams: Tax Collector."

Thus concludes the thirty-seventh edition of the History Carnival. Thanks to all who sent nominations. Check back at the Carnival's homepage for information about upcoming editions.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Oasis in the City

I've apparently arrived in Denver just in time for the only severe heat wave of the year. But the city offers much to compensate for the heat, most of all KUVO, 89.3 FM, the "Jazz Oasis in the City." If you've read even a couple of my paeans to jazz on this blog, you'll understand why I'm thrilled to be able to listen to the station Jazz Times magazine recently named the Major Market Jazz Station of the year. It's rare these days to find a 24/7 jazz radio station on the FM dial, and even rarer to find one that will play A Love Supreme during the afternoon rush hour. Don't expect my radio dial to budge anytime soon.

Speaking of jazz geekery, Doug Ramsey recently linked to a page of rare jazz videos, including a clip of the only known collaboration between Stan Getz and John Coltrane, recorded in 1960. That one's well worth checking out, as is the video of Coltrane's Classic Quartet performing "Vigil" in Belgium in 1965. View those videos in succession and you'll have a ready grasp of how rapidly Coltrane's sound changed in the early 1960s. And as an added bonus, you'll get to see Oscar Peterson bouncin', Stan Getz swingin', McCoy Tyner swayin', and Elvin Jones sweatin'.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Students of history

At Slate, Fred Kaplan notes that Condoleeza Rice often invokes her status as a "student of history" to evade criticisms about the Bush administration's policies. As I've argued before, Rice is not the only member of the administration who relies on this formula. Both of the president's press secretaries -- as well as the president himself -- have often deferred judgment about the administration's mistakes to some distant day, when future historians will supposedly tell us whether Bush was right or wrong.

Kaplan is right to criticize this maneuver as basically evasive. On a deeper level, though, it's incongruous with other aspects of the Bush administration's worldview. When Rice or Bush defer to historians to judge their present actions, they seem to be endorsing a ramshackle version of epistemological and moral relativism. What seems right now, they seem to be saying, may not seem right later. And implicitly, they are also saying more than that. What seems wrong now may be judged right later, which means that what seems wrong now may actually be right.

It's a species of argument -- a kind of radical historicism about judgments of value -- that you would expect President Bush and his intellectual affiliates to oppose in the culture wars. In fact, while the administration strikes a skeptical historicist pose about its own shortcomings, it simultaneously makes broad claims about the universal birthrights of all peoples in all ages. But if Rice and Bush were aware of the tension between these two lines of argument, they would find themselves in the same kind of philosophical dilemma that has long bedeviled liberal pragmatists like Richard Rorty. The dilemma is this: if the "right" course of action is defined by nothing more than the consensus of a social group in the present, so that normative judgments can always be revised later just by virtue of it being later, then how does one simultaneously affirm certain values as transcendently valuable, no matter where you live or what year it is? Rice and Bush are willing to allow future historians to judge the wisdom of their policies, but they are unwilling to allow future historians to judge the rightness of their ideals. But you can't have it both ways forever: at some point you have to make an argument for why others -- even future historians -- should share your ideals, and by the same token, at some point you have to defend your attempts to realize those ideals. The fact that historians often reevaluate past decisions cannot justify abstention from judgment in the here and now.

Probably, though, I'm reading too much substance into what is basically a form of spin. Still, it's a seductive kind of spin because I think it resonates with the views of many Americans about history. History, in a very common view, "just goes to show you" that "you never know." That's the thesis of many an undergraduate history essay. Once upon a time everyone thought abolitionists were crazy; now they are heroes. Go figure! Once upon a time alchemists were geniuses; now everyone thinks they are crazy. Wild, huh? In other words, the Big Lesson that history teaches is basically banal: things change, time passes, opinions shift. As long as this is the only lesson we're allowed to learn as "students of history," we've really learned nothing except that "you never know." You think I'm crazy now, but maybe one day I'll be considered a genius. You think you're a genius now, but look out! Historians may think you're crazy.

I'm drawing a caricature here, of course. In reality there's something to admire even in this caricature. It's true that history should inspire humility about ourselves and a readiness to admit that our own cherished ideas could prove to be wrong. All critical thinking -- not just history -- ought to cultivate those virtues. But those virtues do not vitiate the critical thinking that brought them to fruition. Recognizing our fallibility as thinkers does not render thinking futile.

I'm afraid, though, that more than one student walks away from contemporary history courses with the opposite impression. Our job as history teachers is, on some level, to impress our students with how different the past was from the present. And we are happy if they also make the leap to realizing that the present will soon be past, and potentially very different from the future. But as a teacher, I will also have failed if students therefore throw their hands in the air as Rice seems to be doing. If it's possible for highly educated people to still believe that being a "student of history" just means "you never know," then in some sense we are failing as teachers of history.

So, in what started off as a piece of political commentary, I'll close by asking for pedagogical suggestions: I think most history teachers are adept at bringing students to a realization of how much things change over time, how different now is from then, and how different the future may be from the now. That's probably the easiest thing for us to do. It's the next step -- teaching students how to use the past to understand or influence the present -- that is harder, pedagogically, to take. But if we're not taking that step, or articulating to our students clearly what we think being a "student of history" is, then we risk creating a future generation of leaders who continue to invoke "history" as little more than a covering exculpation for all their mistakes. So I'll ask you, as someone just beginning a teaching career, do you address the Big Questions about what history teaches in your undergraduate classes? If you do, please share how.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Monday, August 07, 2006


A Unified Theory of Academic Willpower

Cordelia Fine, writing for The Australian, shares the secret of her father's success as an academic philosopher. How is he able to sit in his chair and puzzle through that difficult article? Where does he find the strength of will to finish that manuscript? Simple: he indulges his will in every other arena of life.
The secret of his success as an academic, I am now convinced, is to ensure that none of his precious brainpower is wasted on other, less important matters. He feels the urge to sample a delicious luxury chocolate? He pops one in his mouth. Pulling on yesterday's shirt less trouble than finding a clean one? Over his head the stale garment goes. Rather fancies sitting in a comfy armchair instead of taking a brisk jog around the park? Comfy armchair it is. Thanks to its five-star treatment, my father's willpower - rested and restored whenever possible - can take on the search for wisdom with the strength of 10 men.
Now if you'll excuse me, there's a chocolate-pecan brownie and a comfy chair calling my name. I could resist, but I need that willpower to write a book review, finish my syllabi, and continue sorting through archive notes from earlier in the summer. And when duty calls in the form of chocolate, I answer. (Hat-tip: AL Daily.)

Friday, August 04, 2006


Call for posts

Well, now that I'm ensconced in my Colorado digs, perhaps blogging will resume. I can guarantee at least one post in the near future: I'll be hosting the 37th History Carnival here on August 15.

Nominations for the best history posts published between August 1 and August 15 are welcome. You can either fill out the official form, or gmail me at calebmcd. Lately my world is populated more by boxes than by blogs, so please alert me to what I'm missing!

Thanks to those who have already gotten the ball rolling with some early submissions. And if you haven't seen it already (I hadn't until yesterday, when I made my first foray back into the blogsophere after my sojourn through the boxosphere), check out the most recent edition of the Carnival at CLEWS.

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