Author Archive

New Technology Old Skills

February 11, 2011

I have always enjoyed wandering through library stacks and inhaling the smell of accumulated books in all their crumbling, moldy, physical glory. In the midst of a long Maine winter 25 miles away from a big bookstore, however, I finally caved in and purchased a Kindle. I intended the e-reader to be my insurance against inhospitable weather, my back-up source for mystery novels and popular fiction. Since getting it, however, I have also downloaded Jstor articles, copy-right expired books in PDF files online, and I recently used it in class instead of printing out a book chapter. In many ways my Kindle has become a professional tool as well as a vehicle for leisure reading. I also noticed that when I read an academic article on my e-reader, I did exactly the same thing that I do with the printed version – I scanned the footnotes as I read. Some thing don’t change regardless of the format I guess.

Well before e-readers, the ancient Chinese heated and cracked cow scapula bones and carved upon them records of divinations.


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Viewing Students as “Consumers”

January 27, 2011

Recently I have noticed a number of news stories focussing on issues of higher education. These have examined topics from the dwindling number of tenure-track positions, states’ decreasing ability to subsidize public education, and the related problem of escalating tuitions at public universities. One would certainly get a sense from the media attention that higher education in the United States is in a state of crisis. Now comes a new study by two sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia that purports to show American college students study and learn little in their first two years of schooling. Publication of the study led to further debate in the New York Times and an astonishing number of reader comments and responses. If the point is to focus attention on the issue of academic standards and the value of the higher education in the U.S., then mission accomplished.

I found the debate and a number of the comments fascinating. As a young teacher I also found the debate directly related to my experience as someone at the start of her academic career. I am teaching at a highly selective, liberal arts college with high academic standards. My students would definitely not be in the category of those who read less than 40 pages a week and write less than 20 pages a semester. In many respects, then, it would seem that I am in a happy minority of professors at academically rigorous institutions with good and hardworking students. Yet, at the end of the semester, at this school, as at pretty much every college, the tables are turned and students are given the opportunity to evaluate their instructors. The course evaluation commonly ask students to rank (from 1 to 5 or 6, usually) the difficulty of the course, the relevance of the readings, the timeliness of grading, among other questions. The first time I read through the survey, my first reaction was that the questionnaire placed the weight of learning upon the intructor. More reading, more essays, and tougher grading, the laudable markers of stringent academic standards, would also likely result in a lower “grade” for a course. Since course evaluations are taken into account in tenure review, there is then every incentive for instructors to increase the popularity of a class by creating an “easier” syllabus and handing out higher grades.
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Choosing a Lifestyle in Academia

December 3, 2010

The serene quad of a liberal arts college. Is this the life for you?

As the year draws to a close, AHA will soon descend upon us and with it all the stress, anxiety, and uncertainties of the job market. We mailed off CVs and cover letters, writing samples and teaching evaluations, and if we’re lucky, received requests for more materials. If not, we have to endure a harrowing silence. Some times it feels like all that frenzy of printing and mailing in September and October was a life time ago, and the applications have simply disappeared into a black hole. In the general anxiety, it is easy to forget that we have any choice at all in the process.
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The Return of Fu Manchu: Observations on the Current U.S. Elections From Maine

November 3, 2010

The country rent by anti-immigration sentiment, fueled by politicians and anti-Chinese campaign rhetoric. Widespread calls for ending the exodus of American jobs to cheap Chinese labor. I am talking about the 1876 presidential elections, of course. But sadly these words might be equally relevant for the 2010 mid-term elections. In recent weeks, the New York Times and other media sources have noted the surge of anti-China campaign ads across the country. Already gaining widespread attention and notoriety, the group “Citizens Against Government Waste” put out a slickly produced advertisement featuring a “Chinese professor” in the year 2030, lecturing on the reasons for the fall of the American empire. Anti-Chinese agitation in the 1870s ultimately resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This shameful chapter of American history culminated from decades of progressively increasing racism. The long term impact on Chinese Americans would be felt for generations, into the twentieth century.

From Wikimedia Commons

As the results are tallied and political pundits dissect the shift of power in the Senate and House in the immediate aftermath of the elections, the dangerous scape-goating of China as the source of American economic woes may yet fade from the national consciousness. Yet, its presence in the American psyche is both deeply disturbing and revealing of longer trends in American politics. We will soon see the fall-out from the 2010 elections. Yet, the very fact that the anti-China brouhaha has reached even Maine is hardly comforting. In the nineteenth century James Blaine, the Senator and presidential hopeful from Maine in the 1870s and 1880s and the namesake for the governor’s mansion, had stirred anti-Chinese sentiment for his political advantage. But these days the state has barely 1% Asian population. Here in the far northeast, the Portland international airport hangs on to the “international” by dent of a few flights to Canada.

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Globalization, Salem-style

October 22, 2010

Ships such as the Friendship of Salem plied the East Asian trade, circumnavigating the globe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

October is the month for fall colors, apple cider, pumpkin picking, and Halloween. It is also peak season for Salem, Massachusetts, where visitors can  see reenactments of the 1692 witch trials and participate in an assortment of decidedly less historically oriented activities geared towards spooky fun. It was as a tourist that I recently checked out the town. Over the course of meandering about town, however, I learned that Salem had been a major trading port before the advent of larger cargo ships moved the major trade routes to deep water ports like New York. For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Salem had been a major debarkation point for trading firms to the Far East. A visit to the local Peabody Essex Museum was an eye-opening experience in the global ties which had long connected the United States and East Asia. Entire rooms in the museum featured elaborate silver pieces American merchants commissioned in Southern China, where skilled artisans charged only 25% above material costs. In contrast American and European silversmiths usually charged at least a 100% surcharge for labor. Clearly the idea of out-sourcing is no new concept.
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Experiencing History

October 6, 2010

In History in Three Keys, the historian Paul Cohen’s now classic work on the Boxer Rebellion in turn of the twentieth century China, he breaks down the event into multiple layers of experience, perception, and myth. Many factors combined in forming the event that we now term the Boxer Rebellion. For those living in northeastern China at the time, the experience was one of severe draught conditions, hunger, rampant rumors, and a general sense of discontent and foreboding. I mentioned all of this in class last week as we covered the last years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Subsequently I attended a colleague’s American history class, which just happened to cover the Salem witch trials of 1692. As I sat in that class, I began to think about history as experience and the connections between meteorological conditions and human events, between nature and history. My thoughts were neither focused nor deep, but rather the random musings passing through one’s mind on any given afternoon. But then it just so happens that, again, due to entirely unforeseen weather conditions on the East coast and the resulting flight delays, I spent the weekend in the greater Boston area. On a lovely fall afternoon, I followed the revolutionary trail between Concord and Lexington, where American militia had engaged the British army in April 1775.
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New Directions in Global History

September 22, 2010

Over the summer a friend recommended to me Jürgen Osterhammels’ expansive new book on the nineteenth century, Die Verwandlung der Welt. Since the work’s publication last year in Germany, it has received favorable reviews and has apparently done quite well in the German market. Attempting to find a copy of the book in the U.S., however, proved challenging, since many of the New York City libraries do not seem to have acquired the book yet. When I finally did find a copy, I found it intensely thought provoking. A confession before I proceed further – since I only had the book for about two weeks, I was only able to skim sections. Jonathan Sperber from the University of Missouri reviewed the book on H-German this past June. In his review, he provides a very good overview and succinctly summarizes the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

In the work Osterhammel provides a cross section of world history at the cusp of the modern era. The work, imposingly hefty at over 1,300 pages of dense text and a bibliography of several hundred pages in addition, also covers trends in urbanization, mass migrations, and great rebellions / revolutions. Osterhammel describes the nineteenth century as a century of coal, fueled by a shift in energy regime, first from wood to coal, then to coal gas, and in the twentieth century to petroleum. By focusing upon the nineteenth century, Osterhammel delves into a maelstrom of unsettling change and often cataclysmic shifts in the global order. He is also, incidentally, providing a new direction for  world history.

What is the best way to do world history?

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Transitioning from Student to Teacher

September 8, 2010

In the month of August, I have defended my dissertation, sorted out outstanding fees at the university library, packed up my belongings for movers, and within days after arriving on a new campus, attended several intensive days of faculty orientation. With the dawning of September the start of the semester looms, and I find myself still grappling with the enormity of the changes in my life over the space of a mere month. I have put behind me my student days, but somehow the role of teacher and mentor does not yet feel entirely comfortable. Of course, graduate school entails teaching undergraduate courses. But there was always the safety net of a higher authority, the professor one might turn to in case of unforeseen developments and class room problems. Having spent most of my life as a student, the idea of being the higher authority is frankly terrifying.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


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Marriage, Family, and the Limits of Career Ambitions

August 18, 2010

A friend recently sent me a link to a Modern Love column in The New York Times entitled “Is the Husband Going to be a Problem?” The column was written by a successful professor about the pitfalls of attempting to navigate careers in academia. The author and her husband, both Ph.D.s in the humanities, had started out their careers in the Midwest and along the East Coast. They were fortunate to both find tenure-track positions. Then, even more fortunate when several years later, the author was able to find another position a mere ten miles from her husband. Books, babies, dogs, and a mortgage later, her husband failed to get tenure, thus ending his career in academia. The story has a (sort of) upbeat ending, since not getting tenure turned out to be the freeing experience her husband needed to embark upon a new career in finance. In between the lines, however, the article provides glimpses of a long distance relationship, endless striving, and finally, the utter exhaustion of going down this path. Is this really the only happy outcome – compromise, disillusionment, and finally fulfillment in spurning academia?
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Gearing Up for the Job Market

August 4, 2010

Record breaking heat; a certain haziness in the air; humidity and thunderstorms. Yes, it is the height of summer, but also the time of the year when the first positions for the coming academic job market are posted. For those of us searching for that elusive prey, the tenure-track job, now is also the quiet time to prepare for entering the fray. The job market is a nerve-racking experience, particularly for those entering it for the first time. There is a great deal of advice and suggestions out there, in the Chronicles of Higher Education, Perspectives, and other publications geared towards academia. Sometimes, however, one just needs some basics questions answered from the start. Here is my two-cents:

1) The recommendation letter. Most positions ask for three letters. If this is your first time on the market, now is the time to ask for recommendations, well before the deadlines. One of my professors requires students who ask for recommendations to include his/her updated CV and dissertation abstract. This is a great idea, because you can remind the professor of your various academic and teaching accomplishments and other information you might want the professor to include in your recommendation letter. If one letter specifically addresses your teaching, then you could include four letters, but in general, there is no need to go overboard with the letters. Be honest about the state of your dissertation. You could swear up and down in you cover letter that you are at the brink of finishing, but unless you have a defense date, most people will assume otherwise. Your professors will be much more believable about your potential finish date if they can be specific about the number of chapters they have actually read and approved. If someone expresses hesitancy about writing a letter, find another recommender. The lukewarm letter could harm you far more than the absence of one extra letter.
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Match-making, Chinese Style

July 14, 2010

Salon.com recently published an article on the banning of online dating by the Chinese military. Apparently the fear is that lovelorn troops in remote regions might give away hints about their location or other sensitive information while chatting online. To make up for the ban, the Chinese military apparently plans to bring back arranged socials with mostly female work units. The article made me smile – let’s face it, dating woes when not one’s own always makes for entertaining tales – but also started me thinking about what match-making and marriage reveal about the society at large.

My parents had met in circumstances common in 1970s China. A mutual family friend made the match and arranged the first meeting at her home, along with assorted snacks and candies. Both mothers were present for the first meeting, although my parents were then both in their late 20s. The rest, as they say, is history. When I was recently in Shanghai, I got an earful from relatives who bemoaned the lack of good men in Shanghai. Their daughter is in her mid-20s, with a well paying job, and her own apartment after she marries, no small feat in real-estate crazed Shanghai these days. I mentioned that online dating is now a widely socially acceptable way for people to meet in the U.S.. In China, they replied, online dating sites are populated by pianzi, con-men and liars. I asked if the family’s (the decision, it was clear to me, involved both parents as well as the daughter) standards are very high. The mother responded that with the rapid inflation and social instability these days, how could one not set standards for potential marriage partners? Factors like good educational and family backgrounds, good jobs, and most importantly, an apartment are not necessarily guarantees in life, but at least they provide cushions in young couples’ lives. I couldn’t really argue with the soundness of her concerns. Within the last few years the prices of food and other basic goods have increased rapidly, while real estate prices have reached unsustainable heights out of the reach of ordinary people.
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The Geopolitics of the World Expo

June 30, 2010

Late in the afternoon of a weekday at the Shanghai Expo, the line still coiled triple deep and about an hour long around the corner of the Thailand pavilion. I was both surprised and intrigued by the popularity of the pavilion. Sure, the Japan, Saudi Arabia, and German pavilions regularly had wait times of six hours plus, but Thailand was a much more inexpensive and accessible tourist destination for mainland Chinese tourists, and I had not anticipated long lines around its pavilion. When I finally made my way inside, I realized why. Inside the Thai pavilion were three large open theaters, each with a slickly produced and entertaining multi-media experience. The first room featured a movie projected inside a waterfall, the second multiple screens with a large robotic guardian statue that moved out from its wall niche, and the third a 4-D movie. At various points during the film in the third room, I caught the scent of jasmine and felt the splash of water on my face. The message of all three theaters was clear and concise – Thailand and Chin have long had historical connections and cultural affinities and they welcome Chinese visitors! While the Thai pavilion was one of the best produced experiences at the Expo, in the nearby vicinity Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries all had large presences.

Live musical performances on an out-door stage kept the waiting crowds entertained at the Thailand Pavilion

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Expo Watch 2010

June 16, 2010

In Shanghai these days it is impossible to avoid the expo. Hotels are packed with domestic tourists and school groups; subway and bus televisions show a constant news loop about events at the expo; and Haibao, the rectangular, blue mascot of the expo grace the front of numerous government offices, posters, and in numerous official merchandise stalls. To ensure the target of 700 million visitors is met and exceeded for the duration of the expo from the beginning of May to the end of October, various government offices in Shanghai have handed out expo “gift packs” of one free ticket per Shanghai resident family. Work units, danwei, have also given out tickets to employees both current and retired, some valid only during a particular month. All of the hubbub has guaranteed a massive influx of visitors, with long lines at many of the popular pavilions, and images of old and young alike sprinting from the gates at the opening of the expo park at 9 am each morning.

A steady crowd of people stream into the expo park from one of eight entrances.

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Counting down to the Ph.D.

June 2, 2010

The date for my final oral examination is set. As I make final revisions on my dissertation, I can’t help but feel that I am coming to a turning point in my academic career and my life. It has been wonderful to read on the History Compass blog entries from people at various stages of their graduate studies. Angela has just posted a wonderful entry on the joys and travails of comprehensive examinations.I remember well my own experiences during that rite of passage. I spent the months before the exam in the bowels of the library, working through my reading list. I had never found reading a chore. And I now view those days spent in the passive absorption of knowledge as an idyllic time. Writing the dissertation has been an entirely different experience, interspersed with periods filled with doubt and depression, along with spurts of intense activity. As I inch towards completion, however, I feel a sense of accomplishment far greater than with any previous work I have done.
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Finding History in Flea Markets

May 19, 2010

A Japanese Elementary School Geography Textbook from the 1930s

On any given weekend, I could imagine no better way to spend a leisurely afternoon than strolling through a flea market, used book store, or antique store. I am drawn to these places by the same kind of curiosity which probably led me to become a historian – I really enjoy poking around old stuff. Every once in a while, I come across something fascinating. A Japanese student’s geography textbook from the 1930s, with faded scrawls on the back cover; a nineteenth century American map of China; a peacock brooch; old postcards and magazines. All these things are windows into another time. I like the feel of old paper, the sturdier feel and finer workmanship of older jewelry, and above all the feeling that I am tangibly touching another era. And frequently when I come across something I like, I wind up returning home with my wallet lighter, but holding a little piece of history.

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