Thursday, April 30, 2009

Preserve UMass to be Featured in TV Interview

Joe Larson, Corresponding Secretary of--and driving force behind--Preserve UMass (PUMA), will be featured in an interview with Elisa Campbell on "Through the League Lens," ACTV Channel 12, at 7:30 P.M. on the following dates:
  1. April 30
  2. May 14
  3. June 4
The program should also be viewable online after the initial broadcast.

Presumably, Joe spoke not only about his long-standing efforts on behalf of Mass historic resources, but also about our recent very encouraging recent meetings with the teams that are designing the commemorative markers on the history of the campus and documenting the remaining historic structures (about which more on this page in the coming days).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Invention of Printing

New posting on my Public Humanist blog:

All of us “know” that the invention of printing was an epochal development in human civilization. Gutenberg and/or his invention of circa 1439-40 ranked at the top or very near the top of the lists of “greatest” of the millennium that journalists eagerly compiled. But how much do we really know?
Whenever I reach this topic on my syllabus, I ask my students: Just what was this achievement? They invariably give me a set of increasingly specific answers: printing? the printing press? movable type? I reply, variously: “nope,” or “close, but no cigar” (often adding: the Chinese had that centuries earlier). (read the rest)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's National Poetry Month, and the Emily Dickinson Museum is now on Twitter

It's National Poetry Month, and the Emily Dickinson is in the midst of an especially ambitious and successful program: the "Big Read," in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Amherst 250th Anniversary Committee (more on individual events on another occasion).

The Museum has also gone modern. Although Emily once famously called publication "the auction of the mind," she also had a fascination for and mastery of the compact form, which poses such steep challenges to the writer. In a way, then, it is both ironic and fitting that the Museum is now on Twitter, in which every utterance must be contained in a mere 140 characters.

EDM thus joins over 200 of its sister museological enterprises--not to mention Ashton Kutcher and CNN Breaking News, recently locked in battle over their quest for mega-followings (nominally gathered in the service of charitable giving).

It's just too bad that the real Emily was so reticent and did not live in the age of Twitter. I would love to be able to read her concise and uncompromising tweets on these declarations by Ashton Kutcher & Co.:
"At the end of the day, we all have ego, we all have some level of ego," he said. "But if we can use our ego to actually create good charitable things in the world in some way, and use our ego -- originally, I defined Twitter as an ego stream when I first saw it. But then what I realized is if we can transform that into something that's positive that can actually effectively change the world, that can be a really valuable tool."
"I think it's really important that Twitter is not about celebrities. It's not a platform for celebrities," he said. "In all these interviews and things, it's been celebrity -- you know, people know have been on TV. It's really about everyday people having a voice. And I don't want it to be dwarfed by celebrity."
Sean 'Diddy' Combs, who joined Twitter and threw his support behind Kutcher, told Larry King that he views Twitter as an important medium for him to share who he "really" is, and give fans a direct line of communication to him. "It's a chance for people to know the real me," he said. "Due to my own fault there's such a persona of the Hamptons and the bling-bling and the "Forbes" list and who I'm dating. There's more substance to me than that. Over time I've just wanted to make sure that that has gotten out."
One can't exactly imagine one of them writing,
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you-Nobody-too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Dont tell! they'd banish us-you know!

How dreary-to be-Somebody!
How public-like a Frog-
To tell your name-the livelong June
To an admiring Bog!
And that's just the point (though in 210 characters, alas).

As for me, in the end, I'm just as glad to let Dickinson speak to the ages through her poetry, and to let the Museum speak to those who value her work and her world--on Twitter or anywhere else.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Remembering Two Pioneer Valley Public Citizens: Jonathan Souweine and Eric Schocket

We are marking the passing of two local citizens who in related but distinct ways did a great deal to foster social justice. I happened to know both rather well, and they knew each other, for they met in the hospital. They were two of the three victims of leukemia among my friends and acquaintances in the past five years. All fought valiantly and lost. All died relatively young.

This past Tuesday, Jonathan Souweine (1948-2009) passed away. The memorial service at the Jewish Community of Amherst on Friday must rank among the town's largest in recent memory, reflecting Jonathan's immense circle of friends and influence alike. Even strangers may know him, for the construction project that he and his wife Judith undertook furnished the story for local author Tracy Kidder's bestselling House. Even those of us who knew Jonathan may have forgotten or been unaware of some of his many accomplishments: star high school and college athlete as well as lifelong sportsman and outdoorsman, attorney and then executive director of the environmental activist group MASSPIRG, leading proponent of the first mandatory bottle-return bill in the state, successful local attorney--who managed to be both relentlessly tenacious in his professional and political life and unfailingly kind in his personal relations. Fellow attorney Edward Etheridge, quoted in Phyllis Lehrer's news report, perhaps best summed things up by saying, "He lived his life at full speed."

Next week, we mark the passing of our Hampshire College colleague, Eric Schocket, who died in 2006. His acclaimed book of essays on literature and social class gives a hint at what kind of teacher and thinker he was, and what he might have become.

This coming Tuesday, Michael Denning of Yale University will deliver the second annual Eric Schocket Memorial Lecture, on the theme, "Spectre of Wageless Life."

Friday, April 10, 2009

What's Happening to the Fabric of America?

When I took our daughter to the Jo Ann fabric store to pick up some material for a school project, I (as one entirely ignorant of such matters) naturally had some time to kill while she set about applying her more expert knowledge to the quest.

Wandering amidst the bolts and remnants of fabric, I happened, near the bold pictorial prints suitable for a boy's pajamas or bedclothes, upon a group classified as "patriotic." My curiosity piqued, I wondered what would be included.

Not surprisingly, there were plenty of items with flag motifs--although the store, perhaps following popular usage, but certainly no discernible logic, calls them "Stars N' Stripes." Apparently, the people who make these things understand the need for the greatest possible accuracy in sewing, knitting, crocheting, and needlepoint, but never bothered to make the proper acquaintance of our friend, the apostrophe. It here represents a missing letter; thus 'n' is a folksy shortening of "and." But what could "n'" possibly stand for: Stars No Stripes?!

What was surprising was the print depicted here: not because of its presence, but because of the absence of one devoted to its pendant, the Democratic Party. I didn't expect to find the Green Party or some other more radical choice, but I was somewhat taken aback by the lack of any alternative.

As a supposed social scientist, I of course began to generate hypotheses for the presence of only Republican fabric:
  1. Big businesses are conservative.
  2. People who tend to practice traditional domestic crafts tend to be more conservative--so businesses cater to their tastes.
  3. Democrats--despite the overwhelming Obama victory and new good feeling in the country--still aren't considered patriotic.
  4. The population of the Pioneer Valley is overwhelmingly left-liberal, so there was Democratic fabric, but it sold out right away, perhaps in a fit of exuberance between November and February (the pendant to the pessimistic flood of purchases of guns and ammo).
  5. Hadley (where the mall is located) is more conservative than Amherst.
Unable to seek information on-site (for the store was busy), I checked the online offerings of the chain, where I indeed came across a section of "Patriotic Fabric"--which included the egregious and offending "N'" but neither a Republican nor a Democratic cotton print.

The mystery remains--and deepens. Such is the lot of the cultural historian.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Good News About Hampshire College: We're neither filthy nor suicidal

Liveblogging from the consultants' presentation on our facilities situation and needs:

Given all the bad press the College has been getting lately, it's nice to hear some (fairly) good news.

The problem of deferred maintenance is of course the greatest challenge. Almost all of the campus was built at one time--25-50 years ago--which also happened to be the period of "the worst buildings in modern American history" (in the sense of shoddiest construction; as we also know from debates over historic preservation). That said, we are doing better than many institutions in apportioning our resources to address the range of needs, and we are hitting our target zone and maintaining equilibrium. The problem is that, although we are not slipping backward, we are not substantially reducing the backlog, either.

The most interesting news:

According to the standards of the Association of Physical Plant Administrators(APPA), our campus is not beautiful and spotless, like that of wealthier neighbors, such as Amherst, and yet it is not dirty and dilapidated, either. Rather, in the professional parlance, the condition of our facilities is characterized by:
"moderate dinginess."
(2) Summary of our situation, with high demands and limited capital:
"You all haven't lost hope. Oh, that didn't come out quite right."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Serendipitous Finds on the Decline of the Newspaper

Just after posting my recent piece on the significance of the decline of newspapers for historians, I came across several recent related reports.

In one of them, NPR broadcast a recording of New York Times correspondent David Sanger at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. In the question-and-answer session, the talk turned largely to the state and future of the press. As the host at once declared and asked, awash in superlatives, "The New York Times is really a beacon, you're able to do this very thorough work, collecting information, interviewing people all over the world, and so on." "A lot of us are concerned, especially about the future of the print media." "Are you going to be able to continue doing this sort of wonderful work that informs us, holds a national administration's feet to the fire, and so on?"

Citing a recent New Republic cover story devoted the death of the press, with the heading, "democracy loses its best friend," a member of the audience asked, “Do you believe that a few great papers might be saved by philanthropic support?” Sanger asked permission to address the issue more broadly, and replied:
The great paradox right now is that we’ve never seen a period in American history where newspapers are struggling so much, and other media, we’ve never seen a period in American history where what we produce is in such demand. It’s just that we don’t want to pay for it. The internet has made that possible now. So then that leads to your question, which is, can the world become more like NPR and PBS, where you are dependent on philanthropy to make this work. You know, that works for some models.
However, he continued, “it works to a limited extent.” One needs to be able to “take risks”: pursuing a lead to see where it ends up can cost “bundles of money” and sometimes doesn’t pan out.

Sanger's answers managed to be (as one might have predicted) at once astute and oblivious, insightful and self-serving. He is certainly right on the mark to say (not that this is news, no pun intended) that a major shift in the financial model and cultural assumptions is responsible for a large part of the crisis, and likewise that there are implications for scope and boldness of coverage.

However, he doesn't seem interested in or capable of historicizing the situation. Historians of the press can tell you that there were many models of reportage, from the early compilations based on private correspondence and printed sources (including foreign newspapers), to use of conveniently situated foreign contacts, to employment of traveling professional reporters, to acquisition of "content" from wire services. Above all, one ought to point out that one of the major pressures for ideological and other conformity came from precisely the classical capitalist model whose demise we are now bemoaning. The extent to which one is able to "take risks" and pursue a lead can be limited by economic considerations (desires of advertisers, whose product in effect financed modern papers ; need to maintain good will of influential audiences, etc.) other than lack of funds. "Bundles of money" may pay for a lot of plane tickets and hotel rooms but they hardly guarantee boldness of inquiry and diversity of reporting. (Can you say: Rupert Murdoch?)

He is likewise quite right to make a distinction between reporting and blogging, and we're all tired of the sites in which someone just shares an unfounded or unarticulated "opinion" (just sayin'):
What strikes me about what is happening in American media now is that people have begun to confuse blogging with reporting. Blogging is cheap. We can all blog in this room. It’s fun. It makes you feel better. It doesn’t necessarily give you a new set of information. It gives you a new set of opinions. And you know my favorite saying in American journalism is: ‘Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not everybody is entitled to their own set of facts.’ And what worries me about this process that we’re going through now is, we have fewer fact-gatherers and so, if we do move to a different model—if we move to non-profit models, which we may have to do—I want to make sure that we are emphasizing the fact-collection part, because opinion is not expensive to produce. That’s why we have so much of it. Facts are hard to gather and expensive to gather, and we’re going to need a mix of models. . . . I think we’re going to make it and we’re going to come out the other end [of the current financial crisis afflicting newspapers] because there is so much global demand for our individual product; the product isn’t going to look like what you’re accustomed to every day.
He is of course right to cite that wonderful statement about the right to opinions. He is likewise right to bemoan the decline of on-the-site reporting. It used to be that many mid-sized American and world newspapers had correspondents stationed in the various capitals and regions of the globe. Many have now given up that practice, largely for reasons of expense, but also because information is nowadays plentiful. We have gone in the space of 500 years from an age of information scarcity to one of information glut, and that's a game-changer if ever there was one.

However, he again seems to equate expense with quality (I'm sure he'd retract that statement, if pressed, but the iandvertent error is revealing). Where he likewise errs of course, is in assuming and declaring that blogging is only about opinion in the sense of totally subjective reactions and statements of personal preference devoid of either analysis or information. To be sure, there are a lot of bad blogs, just as there are a lot of bad newspapers. To be sure, there are more bad blogs than bad newspapers, for the reasons that he cites. And yet, newspapers have, yes, been known to make mistakes of omission or commission. And bloggers have come to play a prominent and in many ways stimulating role. Bloggers are in principle capable of judging the facts. Appropriate cautions granted, perhaps we should judge the results rather than the credentials. Bloggers, as even scholars of the media are now acknowledging, have been known to uncover discrepancies and scandals.

Bottom line: change or die. We can bemoan the loss of many virtues of the golden age of the press, but the fact remains that the intellectual, technical, and financial models for the press today are vastly different than they were in the presumed age of print journalism. (In fact, there's even—horrors!—a blog, entitled, with tongue in cheek but serious intent, Newspaper Death Watch: Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and Rebirth of Journalism. The separation of the two terms—newspapers and journalism—ought to command our attention.)

The dinosaurs were once superbly adapted to their world. So were the traditional newspaper and the scholarly monograph. One difference is that the print genres—that is to say, the men and women who produce themmdash;are able to direct their own evolution. Need we be reminded that one descendant of the dinosaurs is the turkey?

Another take was briefer, more satirical, and more popular in tone, but equally or more on the mark:

Change or die. Or, as Sanger says, "we're going to need a mix of models . . . . the product isn’t going to look like what you’re accustomed to every day.”

No April Fool

I was going to try to come up with one of those typical April Fool's pieces in which one makes up some preposterous story about one's home institution in the hope that some gullible people will believe it.

But then I thought to myself: No, wait a minute, putting out even a patently untrue story that should be recognizable as such might nonetheless deceive people and harm the reputation of Hampshire College--and besides, Students for Justice in Palestine just did that.

"What does the death of newspapers mean for historians?"

My latest blog post for the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. The topic assigned me was, "What does the death of newspapers mean for historians?" though Mass Humanities gave it the online title, "The Checkered Past of Newspapers":
When people ask me what the death of the newspaper means to historians, I respond, what do you mean by death? or newspaper? I’d say, first, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated because (unlike Mark Twain) it can exist simultaneously in multiple forms and locations. The decline of the traditional newspaper is largely a phenomenon of western consumer society.

An eclectic set of images--"World History of Newspapers"--can be found via the "Gallery" rubric, always on the top page of The Public Humanist. Here are a couple of examples from Massachusetts:

Appropriate for our Lincoln year and Lincoln-obsessed political climate: A classic newspaper from the era of partisanship. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator of 7 July 1865 celebrates the “Great Funeral” of “The Foul Spirit of Secession,” which died “of a severe attack of the Great Union Army, in convulsions the most violent,” on 3 April (Union troops took the Confederate capital of Richmond on that date), and offers a “Tribute to Abraham Lincoln. Extract from a Memorial Address . . . delivered at the Hall of the Mechanics' Institute of St. John, N.B., June 1, 1865, at the invitation of the Citizens, by Charles M. Ellis, Esq. of Boston."

The Northampton Free Press, of 1872. Here one could find a potpourri of local news, politics, literary poetry and prose, and a wealth of advertisements that are a treasure trove for genealogists and historians of local history and daily life. The colossal format--over two feet tall--also helps to explain the old stock images of people sheltering under a newspaper in a rainstorm or during a nap in the park. Harder and harder to do nowadays, with less durable paper and the trend toward smaller formats.

[cross-posting from the book blog because this concerns general historical matters, as well]