On Book Exhibits and World War II Material Culture (#AHA19)

Megan Jones of The Pingry School offers one more post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on her last day of the conference with a nod to the book exhibit and a panel on visual culture and the end of World War II. (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

The book exhibit is one of the best parts of an academic conference, particularly for someone who does not have the time to keep up with book reviews in academic journals. A scholar browsing the exhibit hall for new titles is like a child perusing a candy store, and the feeling of ecstatic curiosity is probably about the same. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) had a great GIF of the wizard from Disney’s “Fantasia” to represent his analysis of historians in book exhibits. I spent about two hours walking through the hall. Here’s a screenshot of my camera roll showing the books I found particularly appealing:

megan pics

I’m going to (hopefully) be teaching a course on American environmentalism, Atlantic World and modern European revolutions, and Modern World History in the future, so my selection is fairly broad. I even persuaded a few publishing reps to send me free samples. Score.

The best panel I attended on Day 3 was session #173, “Visualizing Victory, Visualizing Defeat: The Material Culture of Occupation in the Wake of World War II.” Two PhD candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave fascinating talks on the afterlives of visual artifacts in the postwar period. Abigail Lewis discussed the various uses and changing meaning of photographs taken by French photographers during the Vichy regime. These images depicted a relatively happy and peaceful France under Nazi occupation, which can be best explained by the fact that only photographers who agreed to abide by Nazi rules could obtain material with which to actually shoot photos. These images were used after the end of WWII to depict occupation in a blockbuster show at the Grand Palais in 1946, and also during a 2008 retrospective.  Jennifer Gramer spoke about German war art and the confiscation of such work by the American Captain Gordon Gilkey with the Roberts Commission, and the choices made to determine which art was deemed potentially capable of inciting violence in the future.

Both Lewis and Gramer discussed how the images and works they studied had different meaning for the French and Germans depending on the time under consideration. Both also questioned how the meaning of images changes depending on the context – should we look at an image divorced from its historical context and deem it “artistic” as in the case of German war art, some of which is objectively beautiful and clearly drawn by a talented artist? Do the images taken by French photographers indicate their complicity with the Vichy regime, or were they subversively collaborating with the idea that their images would serve as a documentary record for posterity? Who gets to determine the meaning of an image? The questions Lewis and Gramer posed, which I am probably doing no justice to, speak to a broader question of who owns history and who has the right to interpret historical artifacts.

Thanks, Megan!

A Secondary Teacher (with a Ph.D) Reflects on Her Day at #AHA19


Megan Jones of The Pingry School is back with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on a “potpourri of panels” from Friday’s program.  (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

A Potpourri of Panels – A Selection

Ingredient #1/Session #51: Teaching World History Through Cities.

I have taught modern World History before and have never been happy with my grasp of the material or the framework I’ve used. My school is revamping our World curriculum for the 9th grade and I’m interested in what higher-ed professors do to frame their courses. Using cities as a device is interesting, but as a person who grew up in a rural area I always find that urban focus a bit eye-roll-inducing. You cannot entirely represent the world in urban spaces, ESPECIALLY during the premodern era. But yeah, I get that cities are interesting and useful and the source material is more readily available. Maribel Dietz at LSU gave a really interesting presentation about her course on sport and spectacle in premodern cities, and the ways she uses her own campus to illustrate the role of sport in culture. (From the literal tigers in the Roman Coliseum to the figurative Tigers of LSU, so to speak.) Experiential education is all the rage in the secondary independent school world, and I’ve done a bit of such teaching for faculty and students. Dietz’s assertion that the best teaching is done on site when you can point to the actual physical space under consideration resonated with me; of course, not everyone has access to the resources one needs to physically transport students to a space in which students can interrogate the place and its built environment.

Ingredient #2/Session 72: Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Kaci Tillman’s work on women Loyalists in the Delaware valley during the American Revolution sounds fascinating, particularly in that her work reveals how some women (mostly Quakers) operated as autonomous agents – to the extent they could – within the legal and political context of the late 18th century. Tillman highlighted one subject who identified as a “neutralist” and entirely rejected the Patriot/Loyalist dichotomy. Another woman purposely confused Patriot soldiers as Hessians and performed the part of an ignorant woman, throwing the Patriots off the scent of a Loyalist man whom she was harboring in her attic. These are the perfect examples of anecdotes to use when presenting a paper at an academic conference – I cannot take it when historians do not reference actual individuals in their work. Additionally, the women’s historian part of me had a thrill when Mary Beth Norton stood up during the Q&A to encourage Tillman and another panelist to dialogue about the notions of masculinity and femininity present during this time, and how that informed our understanding of the Revolution as a whole. When is Tillman’s book coming out? And, I really need to read Norton’s book on Salem.

Ingredient #3/CCWH Session 10: The Coordinating Council for Women in History

The CCWH hosted a roundtable discussion covering new directions in the field, this one focused on sexuality and reproduction. The first discussant, Sanjam Ahluwalia, referenced a recent article by two white male historians lamenting the “suicide” of the discipline, in which they partly blame the decline of the discipline on historians who’ve turned to topics (namely, social and cultural history) that have little direct relevance (they argue) to the larger political and diplomatic context of the world. I don’t quite agree with the article and its assertion that the social and cultural turn has led to the decline in history majors, nor do I agree with the apparent categorical dismissal of the article by the roundtable audience. However, I do agree with what Deirdre Cooper Owens said in her analysis of why gender studies is so critiqued nowadays – because academic history is now being written by people who are not white, not male, not cisgendered, etc. And it is not only focused on white men; Owens said she focused her work on the [black female] patient – and that this was not rocket science. As a number of panelists mentioned, the importance of women’s history (which is often paired with gender history) is that women are centered and that centering changes the story entirely. Gender history challenges the binary nature of culture and society, and that is disconcerting for many.

Thanks, Megan!

The Relevance of the Enlightenment (#AHA19)


John Locke

We are thrilled to have Megan Jones, a history teacher at The Pingry School in Martinsville, New Jersey, writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is her first dispatch.  –JF

I’ve been to a number of academic or educational conferences at this point, although not too many AHA conferences. The AHA was always something to be dreaded as a grad student, because attendance meant you were probably on the job market and had to contend with the “cattle call” of the job fair. I’m fortunate to be past that phase now, with a job as a history teacher at an independent secondary school. So now I feel more comfortable attending the AHA and truly taking advantage of the fact that one can hear about the state of a plethora of fields at this national conference. Also, as a high school teacher who currently only teaches surveys, I’m hoping that I can actually learn something about fields with which I have no/little knowledge. It’s with that spirit that I came to Chicago and chose the panels I did and will attend.

This afternoon, I attended a roundtable entitled “Continuing Relevance of the Enlightenment,” with Jennifer Pitts (Chicago), Holly Brewer (Maryland), Pamela Edwards (Yale), Jonathan Israel (Princeton), and James T. Kloppenberg (Harvard). Glad I did, because not only do I teach about the Enlightenment in some fashion in all of my American, European, or World history survey courses but I also have absolutely no knowledge about the historiography of the Enlightenment. The conversation that emerged from this roundtable was a good primer for me, who has not had the time to absorb the literature about the Enlightenment. One of the important through-lines that cropped up was the focus on religious beliefs and religious conflict as important context for the Enlightenment and for today.

Holly Brewer opened her remarks by stating that she is sympathetic to a number of criticisms that many currently have about the Enlightenment and its thinkers (namely about race and slavery), but that we should not “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” to use the same cliché she did. [Note: Jamelle Bouie wrote a very good piece about the “dark side” of the Enlightenment for Slate in June, which I recommended to my colleagues in the summer and which Jonathan Israel also mentioned today as a good example of such criticism.] Brewer encouraged “subtlety and not simplicity” when it comes to discussions about the Enlightenment, and that we need to recognize that the past is complex and imperfect (as is the present, obviously). She discussed her research on John Locke and his analysis of St. Paul’s letters, which garnered significant attention upon its publication. In Brewer’s talk, she pointed out that Locke’s analysis of St. Paul’s commentary on governmental authority in Romans 13 and slavery in Ephesians 6 illustrated many of the major debates of the Enlightenment period. She connected this focus on religious criticism in the Enlightenment to the modern day by mentioning that the White House hosts Bible study sessions, and that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 at one of these gatherings. Apparently, President Donald J. Trump sees himself in Isaiah 45, with its focus on God’s pledge to “subdue nations before him.” [this is my chosen quote, I don’t actually know what segment of Isaiah 45 Trump supposedly referenced]. Brewer’s comments implied that historians today need to focus more on the religious aspects of the Enlightenment critique of society, given the effect of religious conflict and religious belief on society today (both in the United States and at the global level). In her view, the role of religion in shaping the Enlightenment epoch has been forgotten, but that facet is in fact very relevant to this particular contemporary context.

I wish Prof. Brewer had a chance to talk more so I could hear her expand upon her comments regarding religious context, in part because I’d like to hear her discuss the place of other religious beliefs in today’s world versus that of the Enlightenment (in which writers critiqued Christianity, not other religions – that I know of). How does the struggle within Islam today affect our world differently than did the struggle within Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries? Where does Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism in general fit into this picture? Is the Enlightenment relevant to adherents of these faiths, if it is a product of a majority Christian culture? I think yes, obviously, because the Enlightenment focus on reason and empiricism can be applied to anything – although we must remember that the movement itself was a product of its time and place. A product of a largely Christian Europe torn apart. So, perhaps, a movement that was a product of a particular time and place cannot have direct relevance to another time and place with an vastly different constituency….maybe it is not the context that is really relevant, but in fact the habits of mind that the Enlightenment encouraged.

I’ll end with a comment that Prof. Israel made in response to an audience member’s question about periodization of the Enlightenment. He pointed out that it was first an era, and then a process. We are still engaged with the process of implementing the ideals of the Enlightenment, namely equality. I’m all for that. And now, I have a better understanding of the Enlightenment and what many of the heavyweights have to say about it.

Thanks, Megan!