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Luker Blog Archives 5-12-03 to 6-14-03

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AMUSE YOURSELF ... 06-14-03

Amuse yourself at Donald E. Simanek's Museum of Perpetual Devices, thanks to theChronicle of Higher Education. Subscription required.

Posted by Ralph at 12:00 EDT

FLOOD THE ZONE! ...06-08-03

Put aside for a moment thoughts about Howell Raines leaving the New York Times, whether Republicans illegally called in the Department of Homeland Defense to force the redrawing of congressional districts in Texas, and the implications of the absence of WMD in Iraq. The New York Times, the Washington Post, congressional leaders of both political parties, and the net's most influential bloggers are urging the White House and the State Department to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the despotic regime of Burma or Myanmar to release the 1991 Nobel Prize winning activist, Aung San Suu Kyi. The rightful leader of a beautiful country, she led her party to victory in democratic elections in 1990, only to have a military regime overturn the results and place her in house arrest. Last week, at least four and perhaps many more of her supporters were killed in an attack by supporters of Burma's dictatorship. She may have been wounded and was seized by the regime. It has denied a United Nations envoy access to her. The State Department and the White House should bring whatever pressure is necessary to bear on the regime in Rangoon to win her release.

Posted by Ralph at 10:00 p.m.EDT


KC Johnson's account on HNN of his battle for tenure at Brooklyn College raises the issue of collegiality and its rightful role in tenure decisions. I join many others in welcoming the outcome of KC's case. His colleagues seem to have severely flawed notions of what collegiality should be.

When first denied tenure in 1979, I was forced onto a difficult job market with the handicap of being labeled"insubordinate" or"uncollegial." It was a near impossible burden to bear. The character of the department into which I was hired helps to clarify how I came to carry it. When I was hired, we were exclusively a department of white, culturally Protestant, American men. So long as our Chairman remained in place, that was the way it would be. He was frankly unwilling to hire anyone who didn't fit the mold. I was both a beneficiary and an opponent of his bigotry, but collegiality was defined by a willingness to sustain his biases.

One of the department's several scandals occurred the year before I was hired. The Chairman's son had graduated with"honors in history." Junior had taken twelve history courses. Of those, he had an A in nine courses taken with his father. In three courses taken with other members of the department, Junior had earned a C, a D, and an F. Even so, when the department made its decisions, no one challenged the chairman's judgment that his son should graduate with"honors in history." It was a fraud and it cheapened the honors of those who earned them.

KC Johnson's essay implicitly raises the question of what collegiality is. Despite some imprudent actions, KC did exactly what one should expect of a new colleague: he brought his best judgment to the issues facing a department grown stale with few hires.

I, too, had acted imprudently. When the President of the College slipped approval of an honorary degree for George H. W. Bush through a faculty meeting held during vacation, when many faculty members were away, I was the only untenured faculty member who signed a colleague's petition calling for reconsideration of faculty consent. As a Republican, I was not strongly opposed to giving Bush I an honorary degree, but my colleague had lost friends in the CIA putsch that overthrew the Allende regime in Chile, while Bush was CIA director. I thought my colleague had a right to make his argument to the whole faculty. On another occasion, when my Dean allowed a person of limited ability to be needlessly humiliated in public, I protested to higher authority. Not impudence, imprudence.

Finally, in a third incident, I was ordered by my Chairman to vote for a particular candidate for a new hire. I wanted to be in agreement with the Chairman about that hire, but when he ordered me, against my better judgment, to vote for a particular candidate, I thought he was challenging my"manhood," my integrity. I arched my back and voted in a"secret ballot" for the candidate I thought best qualified. In a small department, there is no such thing as a secret ballot.

My"manhood"? Well, that's another story of academic viciousness. When I came up for tenure, my wife had just given birth to our second child. Our first, we learned, was handicapped. We would have to shelter #1 daughter for life, but no consideration of decency inhibited my colleagues when they forced me on the market. In the confidentiality of references, apparently, I was"insubordinate," a"loose cannon," and"uncollegial." More than that, I was married and suspect of being a"homosexual." My outrage multiplied as three department chairmen, including my own, left wives of 10, 20, and 30 years for students in the Class of '79."Collegiality" meant that the administration sheltered their student affairs, but their labels would checker the whole of my career. In a tight job market, who would hire such a person?

KC Johnson is fortunate, indeed, that he doesn't have to rely on the references of those who tried to deny him tenure to find another job. How could his" colleagues" have bungled their public relations so badly and he managed his so brilliantly? He may just be smarter than they are.

Posted by Ralph at 10:00 p.m.EDT


Several years ago, I was stunned when I reviewed a dissertation submitted to a major university press for publication. It was done in a prestigious graduate program in history. The dissertation committee which had signed off on it was competent. It included several of my professional friends and colleagues. The dissertation director was the president of one of our major historical associations.

The dissertation suggested to me that the first line of defense in our peer review processes had simply collapsed. Despite the fact that its author is teaching young Americans in a prestigious liberal arts institution, there was little evidence that years in graduate school had taught him much of anything about putting together a coherent piece of research and writing. There were elemental problems, like: that a sentence should have a subject and a predicate, that a paragraph should be about a single something, and that a bibliography should be organized by coherent categories of sources. I labored over the dissertation much longer, I suspect, than any of its author's professors had ever labored over his work and returned to the publisher nearly 30 single spaced pages of corrections to the first half of the text. In doing so, I may have earned about $1 an hour and finally stopped half way through the manuscript, thinking that its author needed to become his own best editor. I had told him, many times over, what kinds of mistakes he was making.

As the Michael Bellesiles story developed, there was additional evidence that our peer review processes had become poor review processes. Repeatedly, in reviews of grant applications, journal articles, and book manuscript, our peer review processes waved the research and writing that led to Arming America on to glory. They failed us, embarrassed us, and they failed and, ultimately, embarrassed Michael.

A year ago, I published "Journalists Are Rushing to Judgment about Michael Bellesiles" on History News Network. Despite all the debate that it engendered, nothing in the meantime causes me to regret a word that I wrote there. It called for peer review processes that work - even in the face of powerful evidence of their prior failures. In that debate, my gun lobby friends repeatedly urged me to engage with them about discrete matters of evidence. Repeatedly, I declined to do that. I did so because I had no expertise that qualified me to speak to the substantial issues at stake. I reserved all of my comments to matters of process.

Subsequently, however, a book oddly related to Bellesiles's Arming America caught my attention. It was oddly related, one might say, because it is in the same family of books with Michael's book - like your uncle's paramour is oddly related to you. It was a prize winning book, by a major publisher, and it was in a field of my expertise. A reviewer of the book had noted that its author made unusual use of ellipses to transform a quotation to suit the author's purposes. Alerted to an ellipses problem, I easily identified a second example of it and, then, examined the author's tables of data. Using the sources cited there, I found errors - careless mathematical errors - in ranges of 22 to 70 percent.

With additional information and questions about interpretation of evidence, I drafted an article about my findings. Thereafter, I did two quite different things. First, I shared summaries of the article with journalists who had raised such an uproar about Arming America. As I suspected, they were not interested. The book threatened no one's constitutional rights and, in Jason Blair, journalism already had new scandal of its own to follow. So much for journalism's attention to the foibles of other professions.

Concurrently, I shared my article with other academics. Those who were not historians urged me to pursue the matter, but historians unanimously urged me not to publish the article. Following the historians' advice, I contacted the book's author and its publishers with summaries of my findings. The author denied any misuse of quotations, acknowledged problems with the data, and said that the publisher would be asked to correct the text in a revised edition. The problem with the book's publisher is that a major New York house originally published the book and had sold paperback rights to another house. The New York house, which apparently controls the matter of new editions, did not respond to my communications. The house which has the paperback rights said that, subject to a request from the author and approval by the originating publishing house, it would publish a revised edition of the book. Intuition tells me that, without additional urging, that will not happen.

So, there you have it. The clock is ticking. Unless the author and the publishing houses act to correct themselves, I will publish the article on History News Network, where it is unlikely to be sandbagged by professional favors in peer review. Such things make peer review poor review.

Posted by Ralph at 10:00 p.m. EDT


Five years ago, many historians in the United States joined The Historical Society (THS). It was born in the culture wars and disaffection from our primary organizations of historians, the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Supported by many conservative and some liberal and radical historians, the effort was spearheaded by the distinguished American historian, Eugene D. Genovese.

An initial drive recruited about 1,300 members to THS. They were perhaps a tenth of the AHA membership, enough to win notice. Perhaps half of its members had abandoned the AHA and OAH altogether, but many did not leave them. Indeed, the current president of the AHA, Princeton's James McPherson, was a founding member of THS. Even so, at the end of a decade overwhelmed by race, class, and gender issues, it appealed to historians of fields which, to some, seemed passé, to others, seemed neglected: agricultural, diplomatic, military, and political history.

THS could not hope to compete with the AHA in professional bread and butter (i.e., job placement), but it focused on what it saw as neglected caviar. Never shy of vaulting pretension, either in its name or its ambition, THS claimed to be

an effort to revitalize the study and teaching of history by reorienting the historical profession toward an accessible, integrated history free from fragmentation and over-specialization. The Society promotes frank debate in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and common courtesy. All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises, reason logically, appeal to evidence, and prepare for exchanges with those who hold different points of view.
In a promising beginning, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn edited a fine sampler of work by some of THS's most prominent members, Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society (New York: Routledge, 1999).

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese became the editor of The Journal of The Historical Society. So, the not-so-well-kept cat is out of its bag. Gene was the founding president of THS and Betsey is editor of its journal. In a real sense, THS is"the friends of Gene and Betsey." Betsey Fox-Genovese and Gene Genovese could stare a caricature of the elite academic couple right in the eye and raise the ante. Like a pilot's cockpit, their breakfast nook is crowded. The table is stacked high with the debris of lives committed to the work: manuscripts to be read, manuscripts in process, books, journals, and proposals. Like a cockpit, the technical apparatus for directing history's flight (the telephone, laptop, fax machine, and television [for watching football]) cluster in the breakfast nook, as well. Not that Gene can use them. He proudly boasts no technical skills and is likely to grab the television's remote control to answer the telephone. When not piloting history, Gene has his own office on the first floor, an office most historians would kill for. Betsey has a more modest affair upstairs, but then she also has an office on campus, where she is still teaching.

We who hold to providence might say that the good Lord made Gene for Betsey and Betsey for Gene. There might be no one else in the world for either of them. They are both superb historians. Gene had won a Bancroft Prize for his Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976) back in the days when a Bancroft was still worth having. Betsey had made the rare transition from being a European historian to being an Americanist to pioneer and become controversial in Women's Studies. She and I shared the distinction of having taken heavy professional blows in last decade's culture wars. Mine ended my career. Betsey had tenure and left her university holding the bag for a very expensive out of court settlement. Ousted as director of its Women's Studies program, she needed a platform and The Journal of the Historical Society was to be it.

After a troubled start and, still, with limited circulation, the Journal has appeared regularly in the last two years. Only 62 libraries throughout the world are known to subscribe to it, a number comparable to that of Steamboat Bill of Facts: Official Journal of the Steamboat Historical Society of America. But Betsey clearly understands the advantages of a journal which is not obligated to" coverage." The quality of its articles is high and her directing influence seeks to create an on-going conversation or conversations about critical issues. It's much better than Betsey's early report that her hair-dresser told her how readable it was would suggest. If your hair-dresser won't tell you what you want to hear, who will? I will.

Otherwise, THS seems not so healthy. Its primary activity, new recruits were told in 1998, would occur at regional levels. The nation was divided into fourteen regions: Carolinas, Chesapeake, Georgia/Florida, New York City, Metropolitan Midwest, New England, Rhode Island, Saint Louis, South Central, Southern Atlantic, Southern California, Southwest, and Upper New York/Southern Ontario. Regional Coordinators were appointed to organize activity in their areas. Five years later, however, only seven regions report any program activity in the last two years and only five regions have Regional Coordinators. Regional activity seems largely limited to blue country, the two coasts.

The national headquarters of THS is at Boston University, where Lou Ferleger is its director. We were told initially that it would meet on university campuses, so impoverished graduate students could stay in dormitories at little cost. In its first national conference, THS met at Boston University and, indeed, a dormitory was available. It was grim. Last year, THS met in an Atlanta hotel and paid Rick Perlstein to fly in to do a good write up of the conference for The American Prospect What he found was not a group of militant conservatives bent on restoring the white, male profession of the 1960s, but a diverse group of scholars gathered in sessions not much different from those offered by the AHA and the OAH and relieved at not having to attend to their bureaucracies. THS next meets on 3-6 June 2004 at the Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Housing is $95 per night for a room and up to $186 per night for a suite. So much for those impoverished graduate students.

Posted by Ralph at 10:00 p.m. EDT

WELCOME TO MY WORLD ... 05-12-03

As Eddy Arnold used to sing it,"Welcome to my world ...." My world is a closet, where I keep most of my stuff. It has a door, which has mostly swung in -- to hit me in the face or whatever part I presented to it. The walls of my world are those distinctions that mark off my space in the world and tell me who I am.

One wall is my evangelical Christian wall. Yes, Jesus Christ is Lord and He has made me His. I'm an evangelical Christian of the warm-hearted/soft-headed Methodist sort. That wall is permeable, however. Somehow, in His grace, my Lord reached through it to claim me for the community of faith. It is a faith of semitic origin, as He was. Anti-semites need beware. My wall tells me that I am - with my Muslim, Jewish, and Christian sisters and brothers - a child of Abraham and the covenant of faith.

Another is my Southern wall. Born and bred in the South, I am heir to its pre-occupations and its conceits. We were poor white Southerners, the sort who spawned Abraham Lincoln, though some disowned him in 1861. My cousins are white, and brown, and black. I know who I am, in part, because their contentious presence reminds me. Like many of theirs, my grandparents were ill-educated. One grandfather could only write his name, learned to read only after marriage at 33, and then only by pronouncing the words out loud. He would be proud of my doctorate, as I was proud of his rendition of"Old Dan Tucker."

Ol' Dan Tucker was a mighty man;
He washed his face in a frying pan;
He combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
And died with a toothache in his heel.

So, git out the way, ol' Dan Tucker,
Git out the way, ol' Dan Tucker,
Git out the way, ol' Dan Tucker,
You're too late to get your supper.

Like much of our folklore, the origin of granddaddy's song is obscured by rival accounts. A version holding that Dan Tucker was a miner in California's gold rush of 1849 seems unlikely, since the 19th century minstrel Daniel Decatur Emmett arranged and published the song in 1843. But how do you chose between the claim that Dan Tucker was an Englishman, born in 1714, who became a farmer in Randolph County, North Carolina, and the claim that he was a Virginian, born in 1740, who became a Methodist minister in Elbert County, Georgia? Like Georgia's Dan Tucker, I am a Methodist clergyman. Georgia's version holds that the folk lyric was first sung by slaves to whom Tucker often preached. If that is so, my granddaddy, who was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the KKK, sang their words with glee.

Which brings me to my Republican wall. Like most self-respecting white Southerners in 1893, granddaddy was a Democrat. He went to work on the L & N Railroad, went on strike with the railway workers, and never returned to work there. He blamed Grover Cleveland for the depression of the 1890s and never voted for another Democrat, right through the depression of the 1930s. The other branch of our family were German Protestants, who became Republicans, as German Catholics became Democrats. So, voting for Democrats was heresy in my Southern family and I was raised a Republican. We were"progressive Republicans," admirers of Theodore, not Franklin, Roosevelt. I heard Father Abraham callin' my name. Called me a radical Republican. Called me a left wing Republican. When Dixiecrats started calling themselves"Republicans" in the 1960s, I did not welcome their thieving our ancient heritage.

That is because my closet's fourth wall is its"freedom wall." Inscribed on it are the names of Martin Luther King, James Chaney, Andrew Schwerner, and more, too many to name. They lost their lives to make my closet -- my South, my America, my world - a better place. I joined the movement in North Carolina and later saw action in Georgia and Alabama. Mine was a minor role in the movement, but enough to get me shot at, fire bombed, and put in the slammer more than once. Mom and dad had spawned a jail bird. Only the passing years made it respectable. My freedom wall is dedicated to the destruction of impermeable walls of injustice.

So,"Welcome to my world ...," my closet. Its evangelical Christian, Southern, Republican, and civil rights activist walls certainly have their tensions. If they offend you, the internet highway is an open road. But my closet's walls are permeable, its library is spacious, and there are important things to talk about.

Posted by Ralph at