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Personal areas of focus in history

Posted in Academia, Reading by Alex L. on December 12, 2016

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About a year ago, I created a list for myself of personal areas of focus in history. Each item on the list was based approximately around a hypothetical “lifetime” that may have taken place at an interesting period of history. The idea was to help me immerse myself in this handful of “lifetimes” and to become an expert of sorts in the social milieu that was around at that particular time.

In practical terms, this was meant as a guide to focus my history reading and follow the threads of key themes. Another way to look at it is a set of specializations in history for myself, though I am no academic. This list should also shed light on my biases and why I choose to feature certain books and articles over others on this blog and on the History Considered Podcast. So without further ado, I’m going to share my list below.

  1. Classical Greece, c. 428-347 B.C. From Plato’s birth to his death, with a special focus on what contributed to the flourishing and decline of Athens.
  2. Antebellum United States, c. 1787-1865. From the Constitutional Convention to the end of the Civil War, with a special focus on debates about the Constitution.
  3. Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia, c. 1855-1928. From the reign of Alexander II to the end of the New Economic Policy (NIP), with a special focus on how revolutionary workers’ movements were taken over by an authoritarian regime.
  4. World Wars, c. 1870-1945. From the Franco-Prussian War to the end of World War II, with a special focus on public policy debates among Allied nations about how to deal with Hitler’s Germany before the outbreak of war.
  5. Current Events, c. 1985+. From perestroika to today, with a broad focus.
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HC 003 – “Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns” by Emily J. Levine

Posted in Academia, Ancient, Podcasts by Alex L. on August 1, 2016

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I have finally recorded the first publicly-available episode of my long-promised podcast, History Considered. Although I’ve recorded two episodes prior to this one (see end of this post) I have decided to feature only the third as the “first,” which I recorded today.

Listen: HC 003 – Baltimore Teaches, Gottingen Learns.mp3

The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:

Pericles: A Biography in Context by Thomas R. Martin (2016)
Pericles and the Conquest of History by Loren J. Samons II (2016)
The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta by Paul A. Rahe (2015)
The Classical World by Nigel Spivey (2016)
The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand (2010)
“Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns,” American Historical Review, by Emily J. Levine (2016)

If you are feeling particularly intrepid, feel free to listen to my rough-hewn first and second episodes of the podcast (but I don’t recommend it :)).

New history articles (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Blogs, Greek, Reading by Alex L. on November 19, 2012

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Historical Reflections journal cover

“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).

Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.

As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?

But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing  of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. (more…)

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New history books (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Ancient, Books by Alex L. on September 28, 2012

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Scholarship of an empire

Rome book coverThere are really two narratives of the Roman empire. The first one picks up where the Iliad ends, follows the story of Aeneas until the time of the early kings of Rome, observes with admiration the Roman republic, and illustrates the glories and flaws of the Roman emperors. This is the traditional story of ancient Rome.

The second type of narrative is the academic one, which often leaves chronology by the wayside and examines the Roman empire by topic, often sociologically. Greg Woolf’s new book, Rome: An Empire’s Story, seems to be written for the niche of people who are well familiar with the first, traditional, narrative of Rome but have no knowledge of (but a desire to learn) the second, scholarly, dialogue about the empire.

Although Woolf’s writing didn’t inspire an enormous amount of enthusiasm from this reader, the most interesting chapter for me was the second one: “Empires of the Mind.” Reading this chapter made me wonder why it was that Rome apart from all other ancient empires has such a lasting existence in our world. Woolf here also discusses sociological categorization of empires and describes Rome as a conquest state, an entity dependent on political expansion for its very survival. I think such a breakdown of terms like “empire” is useful because, without further reflection, one may assume erroneously that the Roman empire was more similar to, say, the American empire than was actually the case. The United States may arguably be an imperial power but it is not a conquest state. (more…)

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Love of art in the Siege of Leningrad

Posted in Academia, Art, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 7, 2012

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This first of a series of posts, called “In the Abstract”, are ideas for topics for new history books. Sometimes historians, I think, shoot themselves in the foot by framing their research projects in an uninteresting way. Others, though, do this masterfully and create history books that are engaging, relevant, insightful, and bring the characters and world of another age to life not only for the academic community but for the general public too. Often the path of success or failure begins in the choice of topic. In an effort to sharpen my skills in framing historical topics, I welcome your criticism and comments of my imaginary abstract.

ART is frequently seen as flourish to life for those that can afford leisurely activities. Love of art is something that supposedly dies in people when other, more basic, human needs are not being met. But to a select group of Russian writers, poets, artists, and musicians that lived in Leningrad during the siege of 1941-44 by the German army, the drive to produce new creative work did not vanish. Amid the base struggle for survival in that city under blockade, with starvation, violence, death, cannibalism, terror, and inhumanity permeating their existence, many artists in Leningrad later wrote that they experienced the strongest artistic drive of their lives. There has not been a book in English devoted to their stories. A book about the individuals, meeting places, and creative works that these artists produced (among them Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7–the “Leningrad Symphony”) under the most unpromising circumstances would be a testament to the basic importance of creativity in human life.

History off the press (June ’11 edition)

Posted in Academia, American, Books, European by Alex L. on June 13, 2011

The Greater Journey coverThere are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of books about historical subjects published every month. This is counting neither the books in foreign languages nor the voluminous scholarly and journalistic articles about history. Trying to follow almost any trend in our well-connected world is a laborious process, and keeping track of newly-published history books is no exception.

What helps me is keeping in mind that history books are not published in a cultural vaccuum. Behind almost every good history publication, there is a continuation going on of a fragmented communal dialogue about the subject. That is, the author is responding to some ideas and stories that previous authors had written about the same historical topic. Sometimes the author may present an argument that contradicts most of what other authors had written before him. At other times, history books are written more in an expository rather than a persuasive style. But all too many history publications are dreadfully boring because the communal discussion about a topic – especially in the community of professional historians – has taken a turn for the “who cares?”

Personally, there are two main qualities that I really prize in a book of history. These are when an author:

  1. Chooses in writing his book to respond to a historical discussion that is intriguing and insightful, and
  2. Writes in a style that makes a skillful and effective use of narrative.

In this post, I will feature some history books published in May and early June of 2011 that seem like good reads. I came up with this list by browsing the Web for new releases and then evaluating their quality based on the books’ description and reader reviews. I found samples from new books rarely available online, so admittedly some of these authors’ writing styles may actually turn out to be terrible. Needless to say this list is subjective and not comprehensive, but my goal is to add some kinds of grains of context to new first-editions of history. Let’s begin with books about a topic I’ve written about recently: travel and exploration. (more…)

“The Marketplace of Ideas” by Louis Menand

Posted in Academia, American, Culture, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on June 8, 2010

Parents, friends, university professors, family members, esteemed colleagues, and new acquaintances: we are gathered here today to answer a very important question. Why did a young man who has been passionate about the study of history his whole life, who has majored in history in college, excelled in its study, and wanted nothing more than to teach and learn about the past for the rest of his life, decide not to go to graduate school?

Let me leave that question hanging in the air of the (empty) auditorium, shrug off the narcissism (it was me speaking about myself, in case anyone had hoped otherwise), and step down from the podium.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand tries to answer the question of how American universities (more specifically, the liberal arts departments of those schools) have become the weird places that they are. For those who pursued a liberal arts education at a large university and don’t agree that they are strange beasts, I present the following observation of Prof. Menand’s:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. (157)

Why? Menand, in his insightful book, answers the How? by tracing the history of the modern American university from its roots in the late-nineteenth century orientation toward research, through its gargantuan growth during the Cold War with the help of government funding, through the turbulent decades of the late-twentieth century and their epistemological crises (what are we doing this for? why are we here? and what right do we have?), to the current university that we see today.

But . . . Why? Why must a student devote nine years of his life to learn to think and talk in narrow ways, and then spend the rest of his life educating the public whose instincts (for better or worse, but usually for the better) cringe at the sound and sight of this narrowness? (more…)