Wednesday, January 17, 2007

patriotically correct (3)

Just to clear the decks. Last in a series, I swear.

Consider Rick Mercer and Christie Blatchford.

Every ad for the Rick Mercer Report [sic] goes something like this: "Hey! This week, I'm with the RCMP/ Coast Guard / Army / OPP / Navy, and I'll be driving a tank / jumping out of a plane / running an obstacle course / attacked by a police dog ." And each week, when there, he'll crack a joke or two about underfunding, appear silly in a uniform, get nervous and dirty, and shake his amused host's hand vigourously. It's what you would expect TV comedy to be like in the old Soviet Union.

But for real fawning, non-investigative journalism, you need to read Christie Blatchford's posts from Afghanistan; she, like Mercer, was there over the Christmas holidays. If she wasn't creating page 1 news by suggesting that 1 Canadian soldier may have acted cowardly -- and only 1, once -- a few months back ( "Did he abandon his troops?" ), she was critiquing Canadian children's letters to soldiers, noting that one that referred repeatedly to peace made her want to puke ( Dear Soldier: Letters to Afghanistan ). Her au revoir to the troops was called My Most Meaningful Christmas, because it was "the one which was centred on noble ideals, such as sacrifice and honour and duty, and the people who are trying to live them." She ends that report by talking about her "affection for well-placed tattoos and the occasional scar, preferably earned in a bar fight." Ick. Forget Edward R Murrow; Helen Gurley Brown is rolling over in her grave. Extra! Canucks Capture Kandahar Cougar!

Why do I get so exercised about patriotic correctness? Two reasons.
-It is so unhelpful. We don't learn anything about anything. The CBC and the Globe and Mail, perhaps the two most important media outlets in Canada, can put two of their top people in a war zone where Canadians are fighting and we learn ... nothing. And we don't really expect to. If we expected Blatchford or Mercer to actually report on the war, they wouldn't maintain the access the Forces gives them.
-It is so easy. There is no upside to being anything but patriotically correct. It's a message, it's a tone that gets you readers/listeners, gets you access, gets you props. (And to those who say, "Yeah, but at least they went" -- I'm sorry, lots of people would go. There are real journalists who would go. Heck, Jack Layton would probably go.)

....But [he pulls back] don't mind me, I'm still working through this. I'm still trying to figure out what I think about the way Canadians have treated their military and its history in recent decades. Why do we like our history military and our military history?

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

patriotically correct (2)

On the eve of Remembrance Day 2006, Dominion Institute Executive Director Rudyard Griffiths in the Globe and Mail repeated a call he's been making of late, that when the last First World War veteran resident in Canada dies, he be given a state funeral. (Note "resident." Earlier, when the Globe discovered that 1 of the 3 of the survivors now resides in the U.S., Griffiths was called back. After re-examining the tapes, he overturned the call made on the field, deciding that only a resident should receive a state funeral.) "I say, [I say??] let us for once cast off the usual Canadian timidity and understatement when it comes to celebrating our past."

What could the Canadian government say? To oppose such a suggestion would be to oppose honouring our veterans, and what's the upside of that? They loved the idea. Still, it might have been nice to ask the 3 surviving veterans first. They've now said they don't want such a funeral. Nonetheless, the Canadian government has announced its offer stands.

But that's not enough for some people. In a letter to the Globe, James S. Scott of Toronto writes,
Would someone please explain to those objecting to a state funeral for the last First World War veteran, including, apparently, even the last three survivors and their families, that this occasion is designed to celebrate and memorialize the contributions of all 600,000 Canadians who served in that most horrific of modern military slaughters? ... It seems that, in this most materialistic and literal-minded of ages, we have utterly lost the sense of the symbolic that such a national memorializing at once embodies and expresses.

Now that is chutzpah. Ninety years ago, you gave Canada your living body. Now, you owe us your corpse.

When I read that letter, I didn't assume it captured the national mood: people who write letters to the editor (like bloggers) are well-known to be cranks. But I expected someone to write an outraged letter in response. None appeared. That bothers me. Either no Canadian wants to battle patriotic correctness, doesn't want to be seen as opposing any and all forms of veneration of veterans (what's the upside?) ... or that letter really does represent the national mood.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

patriotically correct (1)

Did you catch Paul Manson's opinion piece in the Globe and Mail last week? Manson is the former chief of the defence staff, and wrote in "A Poor Display of Canada's Military History" about the Canadian War Museum's interpretation of Allied bombing raids on Germany. The CWM text reads,
The value and morality of the strategic bombing offensive against Germany remains contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and the American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only a small reduction in German war production until late in the war.

The problem, of course, is if the raids didn't much help the Allied cause. Bombing cities is difficult enough to justify without the suggestion that doing so didn't contribute meaningfully to victory. The fact that Germany had bombed Britain cities can suddenly seem less a strategic precedent than grounds for revenge.

According to Manson, there has been "a firestorm of criticism across Canada", The Legion magazine has called for a boycott of the museum and withholding of donations, and the museum's "public image has been hurt by the bomber panel episode."

In a web-exclusive rejoinder, Randall Hansen argues that "Our War Museum got the bombing of Nazi Germany just right." I'll leave Manson v. Hansen to argue it out. My interest at the moment lies elsewhere. Consider what Manson opposes:
Not the Canadian War Museum's existence.
Not its mandate or its overall vision.
Not an exhibit.
Not even an entire panel.
Just a sentence on a panel, and not even the sentence's veracity. Manson states, "museum official claim every word is historically accurate. This may be true, but it is not a logical defence. The problem is not what is included, but rather what is missing."

To sum up, the Globe and Mail published an opinion piece above the fold on its principal commentary page about concerns that a single line of text at the Canadian War Museum didn't tell the entire story.

As director of a Public History program, I guess I should feel chuffed (as in pleased. I've just checked the OED and find it means both pleased and displeased; I'm chuffed). Canadian history is being discussed, interpreted, debated. But what gets me is how Manson seeks to quash debate. He says that the Museum is ignoring the alternative point of view "in favour of a position that smacks of political correctness at best, or historical revisionism at worst."

This would be ridiculous if it wasn't so dangerous. In Canada, military history is the most politically-correct history there is. In what other area do historians face censure if they offer an oppositional or even unconventional interpretation of the past, one that in any way calls into question the motives, methods, or qualities of the people they're writing about? Think of the controversy over Billy Bishop. Think of The Valour and the Horror, to which the present "firestorm" -- considering Dresden, Mr. Manson, a rather unfortunate choice of terms -- is a postscript. It's to the credit of so many military historians that they maintain their integrity knowing full well the trouble it can cause them to do so.

In Canada, patriotic correctness is much more prevalent than political correctness ever dreamed of being.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

take your student to work day

Students undergrad & grad occasionally visit my office, look around, and say, "I wanna be a professor like you" (one can see them mentally pushing me down an elevator shaft and measuring for drapes). And who can blame them? They see me looking relaxed and somewhat slovenly, they assume I work 24/7 -- 24 hours per week, 7 months per year -- and they know I make several hundred thousand dollars per year. My sense is that because of professors' and students' daily proximity to one another, both think that the professors' worklife is pretty transparent. But my sense is that students don't really understand what our jobs are really like -- just as professors don't fully grasp that their students are taking other courses, are tired, and aren't obsessed with the same things they are. But that's another post.

So. Announcing "Take Your Student to Work Day." If you're a graduate or undergraduate history student planning a career in academics, contact me.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

they like us, they really like us

Yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, bloggers from my own University of Western Ontario History department won two of the six Cliopatria Awards.

William J Turkel won best new blog for Digital History Hacks and John Jordan's "For a Canadian Wikipedia" won best post. Kudos, John and Bill, kudos!


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

public history blogs

One of the things I did over the holidays was revisit the blogs of students in the Public History class I teach. Two hundred posts later, I'm more than ever happy with the exercise, excited by the medium (genre?), and impressed with the students themselves. Ten things and posts not to be missed, in no particular order:

*Carling's blogs, rich in quantity and quality. Her "History and Mapping" is just one of many of her worthwhile musings on history and technology. I especially liked "Being Reflective," too, for its discussion of the Museum London exhibit, exhibit design, reflectiveness. Epitomic blogging. We are Marshall.

*Finding things to think about in the oddest places, like the dark side of Thanksgiving turkey.

*Jeremy's call for intentionality, in "A Challenge for Public History."

*Bryan's call for a Canadian Council on Public History.

*Interesting discussions on the pros and mostly cons of "plaquing". A good example is Lauren's "Wolfe, in all his glory."

*Posts that inform practice, such as "Oral History Top Ten."

*"Top 10 Things I Learned in One Term of Public History." (What can I say, I like lists.)

*Kevin's lil essays, and their tone. A good introduction is "I wanna be connected."

*Posts that travel. Posts that show the inner workings of a mind. Posts that are fun.

*The sound of people thinking out loud. As an example, "What's in a Name?"

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applying to grad school (3)

Undergrads often ask which is most important in their grad school applications: their letters of reference, statement of purpose, or transcripts. The answer is all three: your application will be picked over by a committee whose individual members may well rate the significance of each of these differently.

Some undergrads, by second or third year, have convinced themselves that university grades don't matter in life. That may be largely true. But the one place where university grades are important is ... universities. If you're planning to apply to grad school or medical school or law school or whatever, your university marks will be important. I have seen many grad student applicants explain that their low first and second (and sometimes third) year marks are unrepresentative, that they saw the light on the road to Damascus sometime in third year, and therefore their higher upper year marks better demonstrate their potential. Maybe. This may well convince members of the grad committee to accept you ... or they may ask you to do a make-up year or take some make-up courses, to confirm that the good student is the real you. Better to do well in courses the first time.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

applying to grad school (2)

Ten ways to get good, helpful reference letters for your grad school application:

10. Be a good student. Get good marks. Write good essays. Show up for class. Speak up in class.

9. Don't ask your priest, Member of Parliament, orT.A. for a letter.

8. Ask professors in the field to which you're applying. (Weigh carefully whether to seek a letter of reference from an Adjunct Professor, for two reasons. One, it's unlikely to be part of their job, so they're doing it strictly because of their generosity and sense of professionalism. Second, though they may know you best, their opinion may not be as highly regarded as that of a fulltime faculty member to some of the people who will read your application. This is unfair, but it's still something you should consider.)

7. Ask professors who know your work. Remind them who you are by giving them old essays they marked, by outlining your grades in their course, by a cv. This will also be very useful to them when writing your letters.

6. Ask them if they like your work. Be direct, and ask them to be direct. If they have reservations about you, and about writing you a letter, you need to know about it now.

5. Ask them, at some point in the process, if they would be willing to show you the letter, at the end of the process. Some won't be willing, some will (and those who won't be aren't necessarily saying bad things about you). Whatever. It can't hurt to ask, and it may help you in two ways: by letting you see how others see you, and by letting you see whether your referee writes good letters of reference (some people don't).

4. Ask well in advance. If they agree to write letters for you, give them plenty of notice -- at least a month, if possible -- before the deadlines.

3. Make it as simple as possible for them to write their letters. If a school you're applying to has an online form, don't just give the referees the url -- print out the form, add your contact information yourself, and deliver the form to them. If you're asking them to write 5 more letters, ask in 1 email rather than 5 (if possible), with a table of application addresses, deadlines, etc.

2. Ask them if there is anything else they need, and thank them.

1. And then send an email thank-you immediately after the deadline. If they've forgotten -- which happens! -- this should spur them to write and fax a letter straightaway.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

applying to grad school (1)

It's a new year and I'm girding my loins for an onslaught of grad school applications. In my first five years teaching History at Western, I've read about 500 such applications and expect to read another 150 or so in the next couple of months. One hundred and fifty transcripts, 300 letters of reference, maybe 50 writing samples from Ph.D. candidates, and 150 "statements of purpose" -- the applicants' paragraph on why they want to do a graduate degree, and why here, why with us.

The statement of purpose is tough to write -- and read. For one thing, students are asked to write only 200 words, hardly enough to warm up (the 100th word of this blog post came earlier in this sentence). But a bigger problem is that these mini-essays become too personality-centred, reading as a natural extension, maybe, of the essay the student wrote for undergraduate entrance to university. Here's how author Gerald Graff (with Andrew Hoberek) puts it in a chapter of his book Clueless in Academe called "The Application Guessing Game", and then offers a solution:
Here is a typical statement, made up by us but instantly recognizable, we bet, by experienced application readers: "Ever since age three I've been passionately in love with the sensuous sound of words. So when Mother Goose was read to me in my crib, I somehow knew I was destined for a lifelong love affair with literature." ... It is not that love of literature is no longer considered a good thing, but that in a graduate application this love is taken for granted and therefore does not score any points: love of one's subject is a necessary qualification for graduate study, but it is not sufficient to get you in. ...In Ph.D. application workshops we developed for MAPH [Master of Arts Program in the Humanities] students, we suggested that the point they needed to get across was not that they loved their subject, but that they are ready to join an intellectual conversation about what they love. They need to translate their passion for their subject into an indication that they know how to discuss it publicly with other knowledgeable people, rather than simply enhancing their private enjoyment of art, philosophy, or classsics. This means showing that they have some plausible picture of the academic field or subfield they envision themselves joining.
Good advice. I'd recommend this chapter to anyone about to apply for grad school. If you want to borrow it, just ask.

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