Monthly Archives: October 2007

Blogger wins first amendment victory over North Harris Montgomery Community College District!

Saw this story this morning in the Houston Chronicle, and thought it was worth highlighting, even if the stakes seem rather small:

A lawsuit against the North Harris Montgomery Community College District will be withdrawn after college officials restored campus computer access to a blog critical of the chancellor, the plaintiff said Friday.

Richard C. McDuffee, 58, of Oak Ridge North, visited the college campus Friday afternoon and said he will drop the suit after confirming the blog is accessible on campus computers.

McDuffee filed suit in a Montgomery County district court earlier this week claiming a violation of free speech after he could not access, a blog criticizing Chancellor Richard Carpenter.

“The main thrust of this whole thing was to open the Web site,” he said. “There’s now no need for the lawsuit. By Monday it will be withdrawn.”

Steve Lestarjette, associate vice chancellor for external affairs, issued a statement Thursday saying, “The college has unblocked the site from the college’s server. It was never the intent to deny anyone’s First Amendment rights.”

No comment regarding the merits of Carpenter’s or McDuffee’s arguments one way or the other.  I’m just pleased that information about an administrator in one job in one state followed him to the next one.  This seems like it should be part of the due diligence that both sides should take for granted during administrative hires.

I’ve also wondered whether administrative support for Web CT, as opposed to blogs etc., had to do with their desire to centralize and control the technology the way attempted here.  Blogs are so inexpensive that even faculty can afford to set them up and put them to good use, as the folks did at Alfred University when they tossed out their president.

There might be a downside to these developments, but I’m not seeing it.  Blogging seems to have a lot of promise when it comes to restoring some transparency, if not democracy,  to higher education, especially when we see stories like this, or this.  Those are some deals I’d like to shed some light on.



Discovering history and memory on the Web

A good piece by Allan Kulikoff in the latest Common-place, on Early American History on the web. It’s relevant beyond American history: for a start, his description of the process of tracking down source materials should be useful for teachers and students looking for useful online primary sources in any historical field. One thing that stands out is how surprised Kulikoff was at just how much he found:

The Internet contains everything from newspapers and magazines to travel accounts, from maps to sheet music, from woodcuts to oil paintings, from novels to critical essays, from the proceedings of governmental bodies to the intimate details of family life. Searchers can find materials on every imaginable topic: Civil War hospitals; the Salem witchcraft trials; Revolutionary and Civil War battles; proceedings of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the U.S. Congress; slave resistance; Indian battles; the abolition and proslavery movements; the beliefs and religious practices of Evangelicals and Unitarians; the Lewis and Clark expedition; westward migration; economic development and immigration; and the writings of Cotton Mather and Walt Whitman, to name but a few. In sum, there are far more primary sources on the Web than in public libraries (except the greatest) and community college libraries, though many fewer than in the libraries of research universities.

But, as the discussion shows, these can still be difficult to find. Information multiplies endlessly on the Web; we have rapidly gone from scarcity to abundance. But locating that abundance is often a hit-and-miss affair.

Moreover, there is a thoughtful rumination on what these primary sources, the choices made in digitising history, tell us about history and memory.

Putting materials on the Web is a time-consuming process: they must be discovered, digitized, indexed, and uploaded. Historians, archivists, librarians, curators, genealogists, and institutions like the Library of Congress all put historical sources on the Web. These individuals and institutions have competing interests and hold widely contrasting views of American history. As one looks in detail at Web primary sources, one senses great conflict and contests over the meaning of our past, over the historical memories they wish to sustain or suppress. Who holds the keys to our history—historians, archivists, preachers, politicians, ordinary citizens?

Kulikoff notes how – unsurprisingly – trends in historiography influence the sources put online. The unfashionable, such as ‘quantifiable’ materials like probate inventories, doesn’t get as much attention as images and narrative texts. (Mind you, it doesn’t help that digitising sources like these in a way that will be of real use for quantitative analysis is one of the hardest tasks going: it’s easy to put images of manuscript sources online, but converting them into searchable texts or databases is difficult, labour-intensive and expensive; and you can’t just dip a toe in the water: you’ve got to do them en masse.)

The long 18th century is well represented online, which reflects its popularity among various different kinds of historically-engaged audiences – scholars in history, literature, art, philosophy, as well as on the ‘popular’ side, from re-enactors to Jane Austen fans to the political commentariat scrapping over what the Founding Fathers really thought. It’s distant enough to be intriguing yet not so distant as to be utterly alien, and its cultural and political legacy makes it always relevant to present concerns. (And I’m sure there are many more reasons.)

This is not a bad time for historians to be giving more thought to these issues. The Web has achieved some maturity as a serious academic resource, although on the technical side there’s a long way to go. It seems strange to me that you can still encounter people whose understanding of what’s available seems not to have changed since about 1995 (I don’t know whether this is a failure of outreach or whether these are just the unreachable); still, the dinosaurs are in the minority.

Nonetheless, there are many historians who need to become more savvy about how to make history digital; what is possible and may become possible, how to get it done, how to get the money to do it. Learn these skills and you have the opportunity to influence public perceptions of your field as well as contributing to scholarly research.

Digital History: a few Essential Resources

Digital History: a guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web (also in dead tree format)
Digital History Hacks – Bill Turkel’s indispensable blog
Center for New Media and History
Dan Cohen

X-posted, slightly revised, from Early Modern Notes.

Eighteenth-century Graduate Student Reading Group tackles Franklin’s Autobiography

Some nice essays available here, which are patiently awaiting your comments.  Why don’t you stop reading my tired old middle-aged prose, and read something exciting for a change?  Then come back and finish this post.

I liked Ami Blue’s Imitating Jesus and Socrates, because it talks about the multiple roles Franklin plays in his Autobiography, which correspond to all three types of organic intellectual sketched out by Gramsci, who all work to effect economic, social, or political change.  And of course Franklin excels at every one of Gramsci’s categories, simultaneously.

I thought the most interesting point emerged around Ami’s discussion of origins, because it shows how the men of Franklin’s class were bred up specifically not to be ashamed of their origins:

Vaughn writes to Franklin, “Your account of yourself . . . will show that you are ashamed of no origin” (75). Gramsci would consider this the final mark of an organic intellectual: one who comes from the place he later restructures politically, economically, or socially—as if shepherded from birth by a diligent father unwilling to see his brilliant son lost at sea. Gramsci adds that only the “elite” among entrepreneurs can organize “society in general” because he will want to favor his own class. Franklin’s love for industry, frugality, and his egalitarian worldview wouldn’t permit him to reserve benefits for only his own; Vaughn says as much when he accredits Franklin with proving “how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness” (75).

There is some sort of compensatory myth going on here with Franklin’s life, wherein the absence of distinguished origin acts as a spur to further success and an active role in restructuring his own environment.  But the crucial precondition for this leap is to start thinking in a more general way about others.  But to what extent does BF’s career as a capitalist entrepeneur allow him to think more generally (or perhaps more calclulatedly) about others? 


Rousseau eats grass . . .


[this was the post I was working on last week, when I was shut out of my WordPress account and locked out of my own blogs for a while.  Life has gone on, but I thought I’d share this, anyway–DM] 

When the offer of the flour, wine, and firewood was at length made in as delicate terms as possible, Rousseau declined the gift on grounds which may raise a smile, but which are not without a rather touching simplicity.[110] “I have enough to live on for two or three years,” he said, “but if I were dying of hunger, I would rather in the present condition of your good prince, and not being of any service to him, go and eat grass and grub up roots, than accept a morsel of bread from him.”[111]–from Morley’s Rousseau, ii, 75

I’ve been thinking about Rousseau all week, partly because we just discussed the Confessions in my 18th Century seminar on truth-telling and autobiography, but also because David Brewer recently posted a link to this nice exhibit about JJR’s botanical interests on C18-L

Though I can’t say that much about the scientific value of JJR’s work, I have always wondered why JJR emphasized activities like botany, music copying, or engraving in the Confessions over his writing.  Do we really see him reading or writing that much during the Confessions?  Though there are some discussions of books and authors, by far the most valuable literary portions remain his comments about his own compositions and style.  So I’d hesitate to call it a literary memoir, though there are plenty of interesting scenes and character-sketches of the minor literary figures.

For that matter, I’ve always been struck by how uninspired the portraits of the famous figures are compared to the minor ones.  Gauffecourt, anyone?  Le Maitre? Admittedly, this failure–or is it unwillingness?–to analyze his rivals might reflect his self-absorption, which will not allow him to waste any insights upon others.  But it might simply reflect his lack of awareness of, or interest in, other people.

Yet the portraits of the upper-class ladies really are compelling, and wonderfully individuated.  The portraits of these women betray his fascination with their morally mixed characters, qualities not often treated approvingly in this period’s writing about women, whether written by men or by women (perhaps this is easier to do in French salon culture than in England).  Rousseau’s aim to delineate their moral complexities unites his portraits of Mamma Warens; the courtesan Giulietta; Mme de Vercellis, and so on.

Once we reach the end of the book, however, we’re still left with the mystery of why he wrote it the way he did and what he thought he was accomplishing with this retelling of his life story.  It is surely one of the least attractive pictures we have of a major writer, made all the more damaging by its source.  It is a decidedly un-monumental version of Rousseau.  To use an expression of Emily Fox Gordon’s, it resists the temptations of a “triumphalist” memoir, the lure of treating all past mistakes or errors as necessary for one’s present-day triumphs.  After all, this book makes one of the most celebrated writers of the century seem a life-long failure, and successfully wrecked his reputation for decades to come.  Nope, Rousseau’s errors seem even bigger and more inscrutable after he finishes writing about them. 

 In the seminar, we kept asking, “Why would he do that?”  And when we tired of that question, we followed up with “And why would he write about it?”

After such long and unsatisfying discussions in the seminar room, the course blog suddenly took on a new importance.   If we couldn’t understand Rousseau in the seminar room, perhaps we could pursue certain questions on the blog in a more focused way: secular autobiography?  morality?  transparency and opacity?  We also felt the need to put up more criticism of Rousseau.  And that didn’t work either. 

Since the Eighteenth Century Grad Student Caucus is busy working on Franklin’s Autobiography, I think it would be useful at this juncture to think about Rousseau and Franklin in relation to public success and failure.  Franklin never stopped trying to turn failures into public successes (this is the Horatio Alger aspect of  his story), while Rousseau worked hard to transform his public triumphs into the most conspicuous kinds of public failure.  It would be a matter of farce, if he weren’t telling the story himself.


One of the delights of living in Houston.

Friday afternoons on KTSU.  No fooling.  The best R&B/Oldies shows I have ever heard.  Makes me sad to leave my car in mid-set, because I’ll miss the song I.D.s., and I’m not likely to hear those songs anywhere else.


The greatest danger facing American society today? Without a doubt, English majors

[h/t Crooks and Liars, Evil Bender

For those of you toiling away in filthy unventilated classrooms, working hard to subvert the foundations of American society in your oversubscribed comp and survey courses, I’ve got some bad news: Phyllis Schlafly is onto you.

Sadly, No! brings us the bulletin:

“Advice to College Students: Don’t Major in English”, reads the headline, and for once, it seems like Phyllis is making sense. Unfortunately, however, the follow-up text doesn’t focus on how our hyper-capitalist society, degraded by decades of absorbing G.O.P. values, no longer esteems the arts, so if you major in English you will end up working at Der Wienerschnitzel. Nor does it warn that, should you major in English, you run a significant risk of growing up to be Mary Grabar. No, instead, Phyllis focuses on the most dreadful prospect of all: majoring in English will turn you into a mass-murdering Communist.

Read it, then look around you: did you ever think that you were that threatening?  No, I didn’t, either.


Annals of Cynicism, pt. 352

Sorry, can’t resist this one.  After all, I wrote the book about it.  (OK, a book about it)

Chris Matthews’ latest book, however, received exactly the degree of seriousness it deserved on the Jon Stewart Show.  This was one of the strangest, most hysterical, most abjectly shamefaced performances I’ve seen on TV, or anywhere, for a long, long time.  Crooks and Liars transcribed one of the best exchanges between the two:

MATTHEWS: I’m listening to you…

STEWART: No, you’re not…

MATTHEWS: Of course I am, you’re trashing my book.

STEWART: I’m not trashing your book, I’m trashing your philosophy of life.

And for those of you curious enough to wonder what “philosophy of life” Chris Matthews could possible possess, it’s pretty much what you would expect from a title like Life’s a Campaign.  This is how his publishers describe the book:

The big payoff in Life’s a Campaign is what you’ll learn about human nature:

• People would rather be listened to than listen.
• People don’t mind being used; what they mind is being discarded.
• People are more loyal to the people they’ve helped than the people they’ve helped are loyal to them.
• Not everyone’s going to like you.
• No matter what anybody says, nobody wants a level playing field.

Knowing such truths is the successful person’s number one advantage in life. As you’ll learn in Life’s a Campaign, mastering–and employing–these truths separates the leaders from the followers.

This reads like Ayn Rand and Deepak Chopra dropped headfirst into a gigantic blender.  And yet, and yet, there is a value to such confessions, even when they are done unwittingly.  We learn something about the kind of personality that thrives in our current political environment.

As Nietzsche once wrote:

Cynicism is the only form in which base souls approach honesty; and the higher man must listen closely to every coarse or subtle cynicism, and congratulate himself when a clown without shame or a scientific satyr speaks out precisely in front of him.

No comment on the “higher man” self-ascription, though I think that listening closely is indeed a political virtue, if not for those who rule, then for those who would rather not be ruled.