Monday, April 26, 2004

Musings of a(n) historian-to-be

If you take a look over at the left sidebar, you'll notice that I've organized some of my entries into what's turned into a series of posts about history. Not terribly surprising that my blogging has turned in that direction, what with me spending the majority of my academic time on history in the past year or so, and with me off to grad school in history this October. Very few (if any) of the ideas presented are all that original, but they do represent my slowly refining thoughts on history.

I'll keep writing on other topics, too, of course, but if this is going to turn into a history blog, there's no reason to fight it.

Upcoming (hopefully within the next two weeks): musings on whether sources ever really reveal anything and whether the historical endeavor is even worth it. Okay, you can probably guess the end to this story, given that I've pretty much decided on history as a career, but stop back to read anyway. I'll be talking about fish. Really.

The importance of evidence

A classmate of mine was a bit exasperated earlier tonight when we were talking about an upcoming paper in a history class we're both taking. I believe her words were somewhere along the lines of, "Ack! My paper is just going to be plagiarism with footnotes!"

Her fear, I suspect, was that her paper will consist of nothing but the thoughts and arguments of other scholars, with comparatively little analysis or synthesis of her own. "But," I insisted, "you need evidence!"

To be sure, a mere catalog of facts is not history. But without facts you cannot write good history. Sure, you can tell a good story, but with no evidence to back it up and no way for other people to check out your conclusions, it's simply not history.

I ran into this problem recently during the class I'm taking on memory and history and memory at Penn (I know, I know, that class seems to be the impetus for all my posts these days. Truth be told, it's just one person who consistently says annoying, uninformed things). While discussing the controversy that surrounded the National Air and Space Museum's planned exhibit on the Enola Gay (recounted in History Wars), a fellow student claimed that, unfortunately, Americans don't like to hear complicated stories, especially those in which Americans are the bad guys.

Now, this might be true. Maybe Americans are as simple-minded and jingoistic as my classmate seems to believe. But that's not what was suggested by the Enola Gay controversy. Following the release of an early draft of the exhibit, there was considerable uproar that led to the eventual cancellation of the exhibit. But that uproar did not come from the American public en masse. Instead, the actions of a particular group, the Air Force Association, set off the chain of events that prevented the project from ever coming to fruition.

The details of that particular case don't matter except to the extent that details always matter (to careful scholars, that is).

Details emerge with engaging with the sources you have, not making vast unsubstantiated claims. Any talking head can talk about Things That Americans Like. Scholars back up their claims with evidence.

Monday, April 19, 2004

New academic work

I'll make a real return to blogging at some point. I promise. Just don't expect in the next few weeks as I churn out three 10+ page papers, revise my linguistics thesis, and catch up on my knowledge of the Italian Renaissance.

In the meantime, you can read a recent paper of mine, "Fifty-thousand fans, we probably had beers with all of them": The working class culture of Veterans Stadium. The paper argues that Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, demolished just a few weeks ago, functioned as a space where Philadelphians, regardless of their actual socioeconomic status, took part in behavior that is largely associated with the working class (rowdiness, drunkenness, violence, etc.).

There's a lot more I would have liked to have included, but when you put off writing a paper until two days before it's due, it's hard to include everything. Hopefully I'll have a chance to revise and make additions at some point over the summer.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The demise of the Jacksons?

While driving home from work yesterday, I heard that Janet Jackson's new album, Damita Jo debuted on the charts at number 2, having sold 381,000 albums (the top spot, incidentally, is held by Usher's Confessions). The disc jockey described this as further evidence that the Jackson family is no longer important. Janet's last album, he pointed out, debuted at number 1 and sold more copies in its first week than Damita Jo. The DJ went on to point to Janet's "breast flop" at the Super Bowl to account for her chart slippage.

And we all know about Michael's problems.*

I'm inclined to agree that the Jackson musical well seems to have run dry. But I hardly see how the Super Bowl incident hurt Janet's sales. People have been talking about how her music has grown increasingly stale for years. Reviews of her last two albums have hardly been sparkling. Janet hasn't broken new musical ground in over a decade. There will always been the diehard fans, of course, who will guarantee a certain sales level. But how many general listeners are that interested in hearing another Janet Jackson album about sex? My sense is not that many.

Would we be hearing about Damita Jo if not for the Super Bowl incident? Probably not. I just fail to see how the breast baring could have possibly hurt Janet's sales figures. The people who were deathly offended by it weren't going to be buying it anyway. But if you're interested in buzz, it's hard to get much more buzzworthy than Janet Jackson. If any, the Super Bowl increased sales of Damita Jo.

That said, unless Janet Jackson becomes innovative again (as she was on Rhythm Nation: 1814), it's pretty safe to assume that she's done as a genuinely musical force. And if her cultural currency is based on brief nudity on national television, she's likely on the way out of the mainstream anyway.

*I listened to Thriller a couple days ago. Damn if that isn't a fantastic album.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Sager 2004

As some of you know, each year Swarthmore hosts the Sager Symposium on queerness and gender. A party, affectionately known to Swatties as Genderfuck, is held following the conclusion of the symposium.

Here's what you need to know about Sager:

Guys wear a dress, girls wear less.

Truth be told, it seems as if that dichotomy has broken down in recent years, with more girls cross-dressing and more guys opting for the less.

In any case, you'll see a bit of everything if you look at this collection of photos from this year's Genderfuck. If the preceeding didn't scare you, venture on. You've been advised.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Are these people really history majors?

"To generalize is to be an idiot." - William Blake

I hate to rag on my fellow students in the class I'm taking at Penn on memory in American culture (as I already did once), but some of the things some of them say astonish me. And yes, this is another one of the entries where I put on my intellectual snob.

I wish I had written down the exact quotations that bugged me so much this week, but I do have two words written down in my notebook that I subsequently underlined and annotated with WHAT?! in red ink (I always try to have a second pen color with me for just these moments...).

Those two words: timeless and inevitable.

Again, I neglected to write down the precise context in which people used these words, but anyone with a smattering of training in history knows to avoid these words like the plague (just like they should avoid tired clichés, right?). It would be one thing for the always useful Man on the Street to make claims about a particular development being inevitable or a specific value that American society has always held. But everyone in this class is a history major and should know better.

Historians try to explain the past. Arguing for inevitability or timelessness is typically an intellectual cop-out. That's not to suggest that no change is inevitable. Instead, you've got a whole lot of work to do if you're going to claim that something is inevitable or timeless.

In the first case, you need to carefully examine the situation and show that there is no point at which history could have taken an alternative course.

Timelessness is just as difficult to prove, if not more so. Can you provide evidence that the value or belief you're exploring has been present at all moments within the society or culture you're study?

Good luck with both of those.

Blake's just a bit off. It's not that generalizations are the products of idiots. There are generalizations to be made about the past. But you've got to be awfully careful about how you make them. Here's a better way of saying it.

To generalize is (often) to be lazy.