Six Things I’ve Learned after Six Weeks Teaching the American History Survey

What follows is an all-but-exhaustive list of tidbits of knowledge I’ve accumulated after my first six weeks teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey. After a month and a half, I lack any horror stories or sage wisdom to impart to graduate students who have yet to to receive their first assignment as an instructor of record. I’ve benefited from a great batch of students with whom it’s been a pleasure to work thus far. The list is anything but exhaustive and some points may be obvious to some. Nonetheless, I hope some might find my humble contribution as a newcomer to university-level instruction useful or, at the very least, reassuring.  Continue reading “Six Things I’ve Learned after Six Weeks Teaching the American History Survey”


How “Environment” Became a Dirty Word and What Public Historians Can Do About It

A recent online discussion among fellow environmental historians revealed a troubling development: the word “environment” carries negative connotations for a large proportion of the American public.Some instructors at institutions in regions with predominantly conservative political cultures are witnessing an enrollment downturn in their environmental history courses listed in catalogs under that title. Students in some of these courses confirmed professors’ fears: the presence of “environment” in the course title dissuaded many from enrolling for fear that the course would be about “tree hugging” or a form of environmentalist indoctrination. The ensuing discussion focused on alternative titles that might circumvent this problem and the relative success creative renaming has obtained for instructors in the field.

Yet the dilemma facing environmental historians is more than a sales issue. It reflects a transformation in American political culture decades in the making: “environment” has become conflated with “environmentalism,” and both equated with liberal elitism, economic stagnation, infringement of property rights, and a government overstepping its mandate. The EPA is a favorite boogeyman of an increasingly populist conservative movement and many consider environmental consciousness, at best, a luxury reserved for a meddlesome few who already enjoy material prosperity and, at worst, outright hypocrisy. Continue reading “How “Environment” Became a Dirty Word and What Public Historians Can Do About It”

Lincoln Review: Will Ippen

In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Lincoln: Public History in Hollywood

Once again a heavyweight filmmaker and a well-selected ensemble cast tackle a defining subject in American history. Once again a blockbuster forces me to reconcile the critical eye of historical training with the evangelical impulses inherent to public history. Hollywood historical fiction is a mixed blessing for public historians in an era when most Americans engage the past through popular entertainment rather than monographs or museums and tend to trust the judgment of respected filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg. Historical blockbusters expose large crowds to important historical subjects, but their biographical and narrative-driven format imposes interpretive choices that all too often minimize the film’s utility as public history. The substantial shortcomings in Lincoln, which my fellow reviewers discuss aptly, result from the genre’s conventions. My main objections include the surprising lack of African American perspectives and agency and the perpetuation of history as emanating from the words and deeds of elites.

Continue reading “Lincoln Review: Will Ippen”

Review of the Asian Civilizations Museum’s Online Exhibitions

While studying abroad as an undergraduate in 2007, I had the pleasure of visiting the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. The rich interpretation and impressive collections on display (not to mention the air conditioning) kept this newcomer to Southeast Asia in the building for the greater part of a day and left me well-primed well for the months to follow in Malaysia. After years of training and working in public history, museums, and other allied fields as a graduate student, I have been longing to return to that institution with the new perspectives engendered by those experiences. I would need to fly over 9,300 miles to visit the permanent gallery, but several of the museum’s past special exhibitions are available online. Visitors can currently explore the following on virtual 3D tours augmented with artifact images label text: “Land of the Morning: The Philippines and its People,” “Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals,” and “Congo River: Arts of Central Africa.” The link to a fourth exhibition, titled “Terracotta Warriors” is currently broken. These exhibitions provide a rich, albeit imperfect sampling of the world class museum’s offerings. Continue reading “Review of the Asian Civilizations Museum’s Online Exhibitions”

Balancing Preservation and Interpretation at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

A  tension persists between two main enterprises comprising cultural resource management: preservation and interpretation. The objectives and effects of each undertaking are not easily negotiated in many contexts, making the task all the more difficult for cultural resource managers. Many question the utility and purpose of preservation if its ultimate objective is not to interpret the resource to the public. With public interpretation comes increased traffic, however, which can impact the resource negatively. Such degradation can, in turn, reduce the prospects for effective interpretation or necessitate a complete revision of the interpretive program. The best way to preserve a resource is to keep people away from it; the best interpretation draws people from far afield. Continue reading “Balancing Preservation and Interpretation at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument”

“Slave for a Day”: Perspectives on Interpreting Slavery (Part I: William Ippen)

There has been no paucity of reactions to Hampton National Historic Site’s “Slave for a Day” event, which took place this past Sunday under the new name “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation.” While the event and its underlying theme enjoyed a significant degree of support, outrage at the event, as well as its title and promotional literature, prompted the National Park Service to change its title and omit exclamation points from the announcement. Criticism of the event–all of it coming before it was actually held–has taken two forms: a distasteful title and the interpretive method’s inability to truly convey the lived experience of the enslaved. The former criticism, which NPS staff promptly addressed, is both superficial and moot at this point. The latter critique, however, calls into question the interpretive program’s very validity and is severely misplaced. Continue reading ““Slave for a Day”: Perspectives on Interpreting Slavery (Part I: William Ippen)”

Upcoming Lecture: Becky Nicolaides at the Chicago History Museum on May 10

Members of UAW Local 216 and their Women’s Auxiliary demonstrate their concern with the slowness in the change from civilian production to defense work in their General Motors plant, Southgate, California. Walter P. Reuther Library (11497)

Urban historian Becky Nicolaides will give a lecture titled “Exploring Social and Civic Engagement in Postwar Los Angeles Suburbia” at the Chicago History Museum on Thursday, May 10. The lecture is part of the museum’s ongoing Urban History Seminars series. A reception and dinner precede the lecture. The reception begins at 5:45pm, followed by dinner at 6:15pm and the lecture at 7:00pm. Tickets cost $20 and may be purchased online or by phone. The price includes dinner. As in the series’ other seminar sessions, urban scholars from Chicago and the surrounding area will be in attendance. Continue reading “Upcoming Lecture: Becky Nicolaides at the Chicago History Museum on May 10”