Tag Archives: reflection

Southern Jaunt #3 — My Journey to NASSH

I just finished 3 week trip through the South, visiting family, attending a workshop and conference, grading APUSH exams, and enjoying some time away from Indiana. I called the excursion my Southern Jaunt. This is my third post in a series of posts about my trip.

As I was driving out of Atlanta following the annual meeting of the North American Society for Sport History, I couldn’t help but think, “Brenda’s smiling.”

I first “discovered” sport history when I was a sophomore at Baker University. After taking a required “Laboratory in Research Methods Course” during the fall semester, which met in the reading room of our on-campus archive, I became aware of scholarly journals. After that class (and still to this day), I made it part of my routine to stop in the periodicals section of the library and browse the new history journals. One of them that always caught my was Kansas History the journal of the Kansas State Historical Society. In its Autumn 2005 issue, there appeared an article entitled, “‘Can Basketball Survive Wilt Chamberlain?:’ The Kansas Years of Wilt the Stilt” by Aram Goudsouzian. That article gave me the crazy idea that I could study sports and history at the same time.

That spring my first experiement doing sport related history was in a Roman history course. For our research paper we were assigned to find a ‘gauge of romanization in Britain.’ As a student of classical Latin (although the word is originally Greek), I was familiar with the palaestra, a Roman exercise grounds often located near a bath complex. The palaestra was an important part of Roman daily life, especially soldiers and elites. After discussing it with my professor, I decided to read a series of archaeological articles and maps to find out if and where palaestrae were located in Britain. It turns out they did exist, and I was able to find a pattern where and explanation of why. The paper, although fairly simple and tad bit too short, was a success. I was on my way to becoming a sport historian.

My early passion for classical Roman and medieval history quickly subsided the more I was pushed into primary source research. U.S. history made more sense, and better aligned with my new-found interest in sport history. At the time, however, I remained a history and secondary education major intent on teaching junior high or high school and most likely coaching. Because of the double major, I elected to write my required senior thesis the spring of my junior year, so that I could student teach the spring of my senior year. The topic of that thesis was “The History of Men’s Track and Field at Baker University” (which I turned into a digital exhibit in 2013 and spoke about at NASSH in Atlanta).

Writing my undergraduate thesis required copious amounts of research. I routinely hung out in the archives 2 or 3 days a week for several hours. I quickly developed a good working relationship with the archivist, and she was impressed by my dedication and diligence. Indeed, I fell in love with researching that semester. After finishing my thesis (and earning a coveted, rare A from my professor, Dr. Exon), the archivist asked if I’d like to intern over the summer. I gladly accepted the offer.

The archivist was Brenda Day. She had worked at Baker university for nearly two decades by the time I met her. She was eccentric and friendly woman that lived and breathed local and campus history. One of her passions was the Old Castle Museum (Baker’s first building, and the first university building in Kansas), which she felt a paranormal connection to (this led to a later study I did on the history of ghost stories at Baker), and helped save and renovate years before I arrived on campus. Brenda was also a leader in the efforts to develop the Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Trust, and taught a special class on the topic to dig deeper into its Bleeding Kansas and Civil War connections.

During my internship I was tasked with helping the marketing department prepare for the university’s sesquicentennial celebration. Basically, I did research for them and distilled stories into short segments that they could use on display panels and in brochures. I also got to explore the other functions of the archives, like help patrons who visited during the annual United Methodist Conference meeting to do research, re-house and catalog items, and process a collection of my own choosing. As a budding sport historian, I chose to process and re-house a file cabinet that belonged to a long retired Chemistry Professor, E.J, Cragoe. He served as the faculty athletic representative from Baker University to the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) for over 20 years. He also served as Secretary and later Vice President of the KCAC. The collection included: the official conference meeting minutes, eligibility reports, heat-sheets and programs for the annual track meet, correspondence with important athletic officials and documents various and sundry. When I first got my hands on it, it had been sitting in the archive (which was then an open archive with very few finding aids) for a while as if it was wheeled in on a dolly and left untouched for decades. It was wonderful experience, and further fueled my passion for sport history.

It was during this time that I decided that I might try to do something other than become a junior high (I liked that age better than high school) social studies teacher. Archival work was kind of fun, research was fun, museums were neat. I had all sorts of options! AND, because I decide the summer before my senior year, I could drop my secondary education major, take more history classes, and apply to graduate school. Things sure seemed like they made a lot of sense then! I was living the dream in the summer of 2007.

Of course, the sudden decision to not become a teacher took quite a few people by storm. Sport history sounded great, but few of my professors had actually heard of it. One recalled maybe seeing a textbook in a catalog (it was Richard O. Davies book), but he didn’t know anyone who did it. Another professor confessed she’d always thought I’d make a great teacher, she sensed it about me, and was a little surprised that I wanted to give academia a try. She offered to help me nonetheless, and gave my materials her ever-intimidating once over, leaving them bloody with her trademark red ink.

The unstable or at least uncertain career prospects also scared some of my family. I could teach for a few years, then go back, they suggested. My Grandmother, to her credit, thought it was smart to pursue my passion now instead of get stuck teaching and regret never giving it a shot 5 years later when I had a mortgage and maybe a family. At that point it would be too late and I’d be too comfortable, she advised.

Amidst this uncertainty, Brenda believed in me and encouraged me. She said it might take time, but I would fit the right fit and become a sport historian. “You might just have to write your own ticket,” she reassured me, with unwavering confidence. Brenda encouraged me to become a sport historian before anyone else, and after she saw my passion in the archives, knew that it was what I was meant to be.

The story gets sad, and little disappointing from there. I dropped my education major, but failed to get into any of the graduate schools I applied to. I aimed higher than I realized, but was also a victim of poor timing. The economic recession of 2008 doomed my dreams like so many others. Luckily, I was offered a graduate assistant coaching position. I got a “free” master’s degree, while coaching track and field. My undergraduate mentors thought this was the best situation for me. It gave me time to decide between academia and coaching, while gaining experience doing both.

Brenda offered to let me stay on at the archives (I continued as a volunteer intern throughout my senior year). At the end of my internship, sometime in the early fall of 2007, her cancer came back. She’d beaten it once before, but this time it was more serious and more aggressive. By the middle of the fall of 2007, I was more or less running the archives alone. A graduate intern from the University of Kansas oversaw the museum and administrative duties, but I did the day-to-day things. At one point Brenda and I talked about the possibility of me taking over the position full-time in the future, but she thought I was destined for something greater. She once again said, “you gonna write your own ticket” and become a sport historian.

During the 2008-2009 school year, I worked in the archives in the morning, coached in the afternoon, and took classes toward a Masters of Liberal Arts in the evening. By late-January of that year I had become disenchanted with coaching. The long hours, constant travel, and disagreements with the head coach wore on me. Although I’d already missed all of the important December and January graduate school deadlines, I began looking at history programs with sport historians. I serendipitously discovered Richard O. Davies at the University of Nevada, Reno. They had a March 1st deadline and offered funding. I rushed the application, writing new materials, emailing Dr. Davies, and asking the graduate advisor if my MLA would count toward the PhD or I’d need to get an MA. They said they’d consider my app for both, and got the materials just under the wire. It was the only school I applied to, so I kept it quiet, in case I needed to return for the second year of my graduate assistantship.

In early April I found out I was accepted, without funding, and only for the MA. Though disappointing, I still intended on going, hoping they could find me some money and determined to make it work. I was never able to tell Brenda the good news. She was near death by then, frail and unable to type. One of my professors assured me that she knew, and was proud of me. Her faith meant the world to me, and pushed me to pursue my dream. Brenda died on April 25, 2009.

In August, I left Kansas for Nevada. I was on my way to becoming a sport historian.

My graduate career in Reno was nothing short of a success. While Aram Goudsouzian, a Purdue PhD and Randy Roberts student, was the first sport historian I ever read, Richard O. Davies was the first one I ever met. From day 2 he set my eyes on Purdue for doctoral work, helped me craft a thesis topic, outline efficient plan of study, and pushed me to get done quickly. Dick Davies remains an incredible mentor and friend, and has worked tirelessly to help me advance my career and improve me work.

Two years after arriving in Nevada, I came to Purdue to work with Randy Roberts. Although my time here has been less expedient than I would have liked, I’ve continued on my journey toward becoming a sport historian. Yet, in all of my years working in the field, doing research, writing my master’s thesis, publishing book chapters, starting a blog, I never attended NASSH. I joined in 2010, and hoped to go, but it never fit into my travel plans, it was in an inconvenient location, or I didn’t have the money. This year, I attended my first NASSH, taking another important step in becoming a sport historian.

Although my journey towards becoming a sport historian is not yet complete, attending the conference felt like a homecoming. For the first time I was surrounded by fellow sport historians. I’d known a few, and been around a handful or so of them at other conferences, but NASSH was an entirely different level. I soaked it in all week. I attended as many sessions as I could. I Tweeted, I took notes, I exchanged business cards, and marveled at meeting professors who I only knew from my bookshelves. I felt a proud camaraderie with many of my fellow attendees. There was the group of bloggers who I knew only from online but felt like friends. There was the “Purdue Mafia” of alumni that I’d heard stories about and felt sort of like fraternity brothers. It was a massive homecoming reunion centered around our shared passion.

It was, in so many ways, NASSH was the culmination of a dream I’d been working towards for so many years. And, the most fitting part was that my paper discussed my undergraduate thesis. Those long hours in the archives, the advice of Brenda, her unwavering faith in me, were on display in my session. The dedication of my master’s thesis, which I defended in 2011, reads “For Brenda, who lives on in the process of history.”  She lived on at NASSH this year, and she was smiling the whole time.

History is Personal: The Final Lecture of My Course

One of the professors that I’ve TA’d for at Purdue does a very powerful and moving “Meaning of Life” lecture to end all of his courses. In the presentation he takes the kids through his personal history emphasizing important lessons he’s learned on how to be successful and happy. It’s incredibly well-done and always leaves students moved.

Though I don’t have the same life-lessons and experiences yet, I tried to do something similar at the end of my course this fall. I called it “History is Personal” and delivered it on the last day of class. I was unable to do my “The Recent Past” lecture, where we talk about things like 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama, because I was ill, so I tried to build off of those historically significant moments where my students have personal memories to start a larger conversation about our personal interaction with history. While this is a theme I tried to carry throughout the semester via the book on Swimming Pools, I viewed this final presentation as a more explicit discussion of personal history.

I divided the lecture into four different angles to look at history — all of which my students can personally relate back to themselves. The angles were: 1) historical events you lived through, 2) historic sites and places, 3), personal history, 4) digital history. Then I concluded with some final thoughts and takeaways from the lecture and the course overall.

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The “History You’ve Lived Through” section was more questions driven. I wanted my students to think about major historical events that took place during their lives and think about what they remember about it, how if affected their lives, and consider how their experiences are different than other people who lived through the same things. At the heart of these questions are notions of perspective and context highlighting the complexity of history and sources. They also shed light on questions of significance and how time and distance can affect our views of the past.

Most of my students were 5 or 6 when 9/11 happened, they remember it much differently than I do. Likewise, some were in different parts of the country. Timezones can make a difference when major events happen. Regardless, they all had some sort of memory and something to share. These memories are important. Some recognized that they’ve been shaped by subsequent news coverage and anniversaries. What was fun was to see their minds working though their memories. Especially when I told them that these are stories they’ll probably be telling to their kids or grandkids someday. My Mom told me a story about where she was when JFK was shot, and they’ll have something similar. History is something we all witness and all have different views and perspectives on. It’s a real thing, and sometimes these multiple memories and perspectives get lost in lectures and textbooks.

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Next, I asked my students to think about how they connect with historic places and sites. At a fundamental level these things attempt to anchor history to place. The idea of what happened here, or as my good friend Peter asks, what grows here (since he is an environmental and agricultural historian), are fundamentally personal questions about a community and a place that invite us to learn more. They’re telling of a place and its history. It’s the connection between sense of place and sense of history. These connections can be very powerful and help not just historians, but visitors and community members better understand their world.

I asked my student to think back to when we talked about the 1920s and 1930s — I told them about Ross-Ade Stadium and Elliott Hall of Music at Purdue and their connections to national trends. I reminded them that there are probably similar stories about their hometowns. A famous person, a famous building, perhaps a courthouse or a school, maybe a park and a bandstand. Maybe it’s an old stadium. These histories are their history because they shape who they are by defining where they’re from. They introduced them to the world around them and what their community values.

Of course, historic sites aren’t personal for everyone. If you go somewhere new, you might not see the significance in things. An old house or an old tree might seem lame. But if you take a step back, you can see how different things in history are important to different folks, different communities. This goes beyond places. People in the South view the Civil War and its leaders much differently than those of us in the North. People out west have different views of Native Americans. Likewise, a historic site in a different country might not mean the same thing to you.

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For me, however, personal history is directly connected to public history. I got into history because I grew up having really close and personal relationships with my Great Grandmothers. I continued cultivating my interest in history by studying the places around me. Much of my undergraduate research was on local history and university history. I did my senior thesis on the history of my college track team. Later, my master’s thesis focused on Billy Mills, one of my running heroes growing up. For me, history has always required a personal connection for it to come alive. Learning family history and local history helped me discover who I am, where I came from, and how I fit into the larger story of American history. I hope that by sharing my story and the story of my family, it helped my students to think about their story and how they connect their personal and family history to the history they learned all semester.

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On my way back from my research to trip to Oklahoma last summer I drove through Kansas. I grew up in Kansas and while I was cruising through the majestic Flint Hills I passed familiar places from my youth. I was overcome by nostalgia seeing the familiar sites and reading the town names. It’s been probably 15 years or more since I’d seen the old family farm and the houses where my Great Grandmothers lived and I spent so much time as a kid. I decided to stop, stretch my legs, and take a few photos.

As my biography page explains, I was lucky as a child. I grew up with two Great Grandmothers that lived into their 90s. Both of them died when I was in high school. They lived less than an hour from me so I spent a lot of time with them at their houses. They told me stories about our family history as well as some local history. One of them got me into collecting coins which I think also contributed to my love of history. In a lot of ways, because of their age and experiences, it was like growing up and having close relationships with two amazing primary sources. Below are a few of their stories (I have more that I didn’t share here).

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McGregor Farmhouse, July 2014

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My Grandma Edith and Grandpa Dean (who I never met) moved to Saffordville, KS in the late 1930s. They moved into a large 5-bedroom farmhouse on the edge of town, across the street from the Toledo Township High School. The house was built in 1916, my Grandma loved to remind me. When they bought it, the trees were overgrown and I get the sense that it was vacant for some time. I remember one story she used to tell about when they first moved in. A black snake was inside the house, slithering on the wall across the archway between the living room and dining room. The rooms were divided by wooden pocket doors. The snake must have nested inside the pockets and become spooked by the new residents. Grandpa Dean was unfazed, Grandma explained. He grabbed the snake by the tail and snapped its head against the ground quickly killing it.

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Grandpa Dean and Grandma Edith at the 50th Anniversary, June 1978

Edith was the daughter of Welsh immigrants. Her father, Evan Ellis, came to the U.S. in 1883, when he was 12 years old. In 1905, he settled in Lebo, KS and began farming. Grandma Edith was born in Kansas City just before they moved. Though she had 5 younger siblings, she outlived them all. I never met my Great Grandfather McGregor. He died before I was born from complications following a stroke. Grandpa Dean worked for the railroad. They lived in Newton, KS prior to moving to Saffordville.

Saffordville was a small town located along the railroad and U.S. Route 50 between Cottonwood Falls, Strong City, and Emporia. The Cottonwood River ran just south of town providing fertile soil and irrigation to the farming community located on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills. Farming and ranching were the primary occupations of most resident of Chase County, Kansas. Though Grandpa Dean worked for the railroad, he owned land too. He rented some, but not all of it, to other nearby farmers.

I don’t know the complete history of Saffordville, but the story of its end is all too familiar. The 1951 ravished the area. The Cottonwood River didn’t just jump its banks, it engulfed the nearby plains. The water kept rising and rising. It crested just below the top of Grandma Edith’s dining room table. While most residents evacuated and moved, she stayed. Grandpa Dean took a row-boat to Emporia for work and the rest of the family — my Grandfather Gary and his sister Janet — moved to the second floor of the house.

Grandpa Gary was 16 at the time and quickly grew restless. According to William Least Heat-Moon’s book Prairie Earth (which is a history of Chase County, KS), he passed the time by climbing on to the roof to shoot trash floating by in the muddy water. Heat-Moon’s account comes directly from my Grandma Edith, who he interviewed while writing the book.

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Toledo Township High School, July 2014

Saffordville never recovered from the flood. Most residents picked up and moved to higher ground or other towns not in the Cottonwood’s flood-plain. The only remnants of the town are three houses and the old Toledo Township High School. As a kid we joked that we doubled the town’s population whenever we visited. 

I’m not sure when the high school closed. Both my Grandpa Gary and my Grandma Donna graduated from the school in the mid-1950s. The interior wasn’t in bad shape when I explored the old building in the late-1990s. We walked through the gymnasium and I remember being amused by its small size and lack of a 3-point line. This was before I learned it wasn’t added to the sport until the mid-1980s.

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Saffordville United Methodist Church, July 2014

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Following the flood the Saffordville United Methodist Church moved to higher ground. As I recall the church building was moved on a truck and placed on a new foundation north of U.S. Route 50, roughly 3 miles from the old town. Both of my Great Grandmothers were members of the church. Their funerals were held there, and I believe my Dad’s parents, my Grandpa Gary and Grandma Donna, were married there. It was the social center of so many of my visits to Saffordville. Throughout my childhood I attended church there on my visits and went to their Vacation Bible School during the summers.

Because my Great Grandmothers both lived into their 90s and spent all of their adult lives there, the entire congregation felt like family (and a lot of it was). My Granny Buffon lived closer to the new church site. She was born and raised in Chase County. Her father, Walter Erickson, came to the U.S. when he was 12 too (which would have been 1895). He was tenant farmer most of his life. I actually own his old truck now, a 1952 Chevy.

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Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse

My Granny Buffon taught school while my Grandpa Buffon farmed. Granny Buffon started teaching right after she graduated from 8th grade. She got a special teaching license and taught at the Lower Fox Creek one room schoolhouse. There was only about 3 families in the area, so she didn’t have too many students. Her younger sisters were actually among those students. The school is now a part of Tallgrass National Prairie Reserve. My Granny was the last teacher at the school, and according to the National Park Service, she made $80 per month in 1929 (she would have been 18 years old). She later went to Kansas State Teachers College  (now Emporia State University) and got her full teaching license.

She continued to teach while my Great Grandpa farmed. They mostly just had animals, cattle, sheep, and chickens. My mother tells a story about the first time she met my Great Grandpa. They were in his truck and he reached over to the glove box and pulled out a bunch of sheep’s tails and waved them in her face to see what she would do. He always a bit of a jokester. My Grandma Donna once told me a story about having to clean chickens for dinner. Granny Buffon would chop the head off with an ax, turning away not to watch the impact. My Grandma Edith, on the other hand, would just wring their necks with her bare hands. Then, my Grandma and her sister would have to clean the bird — pluck the feathers, bleed it out, etc. — before they could cook it. It’s so fascinating to me that only 2 to 3 generations ago that’s how people lived.

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Buffon Farmhouse, July 2014

When I was a kid they still had an old wooden outhouse not too far from their house. According to my Dad, my Great Great Grandpa Walt, who lived until he was 98, refused to use the indoor plumbing. He was a weird guy. He also used the same coffee grounds all week long. A throwback to simpler times when you had to be frugal.

One thing I’ll never forget from my Granny Buffon’s house was the time we went for a picnic in her “crick” — not creek — and the soda we brought started to float away. It was one of those 6-packs with rings that connected all of the cans. We put it in the water to stay cool and anchored it down on a stick. The stick came loose in the current and it started to go down stream. Granny B ran to the house, strapped on her waders, and then went marching after it. I don’t remember if she found it. I think she did.

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This early history, this family history, taught me about who I am, it taught me about the place I was from. Although I didn’t know much about what was going in American history at the time, it gave me a baseline of personal knowledge to connect with major historic events I learned in my classes. Things like the urban rural-divide. The Great Depression, immigration, etc. Of course, I also learned a thing or two I’ve never was taught in school. My Granny Buffon taught me the origins of the phrase “hicks” as in someone who is backwoods and uncivilized. As an old one room schoolhouse teacher, she claims that the term comes from rural and unorthodox teachers who disciplined their students with hickory sticks. People who disagreed with their methods called them “hicks.” I’ve told that story to several other historians, and no one has heard anything similar before, but it seems to be accurate.

My students may not have had the same vast experience that I had with my Grandparents and Great Grandparents, but hopefully they’ve had some. I think its useful for them to think about where and what their grandparents were doing during many of the events we talked about. Personal places and personal history can serve as a way to anchor major events we talked about in class into tangible realities.

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The final angle I explored was digital history. I’m very interested in the digital humanities and mixing history and digital technology. One of the things I do is kook at ways to present history to the public in innovative ways. During the course of the class and as I moved into the 1980s and 1990s, I began to wonder, how do we tell the history of the digital age? What are the important events? And how has digital technology complicated the process of history — remembering things, saving and preserving documents, images, etc.?

My students are what scholars refer to as “digital natives.” They grew up with computers, smart phones, digital cameras, USB drives and easy storage, etc. They also grew up with social networks and blogs. I remember in college waiting a full year after my friends at KU got Facebook until my college was added to the network. In the early days only college students could sign up (you had to have a .edu email) and only certain colleges were recognized. It was a slow process of expanding. I got mine in May 2005.

Now, today so much of our own personal information is spread across the web. Our photos are spread across websites and apps like Instagram and Facebook. All of our phone numbers are all in our phones. Everyone’s had that experience when they lost or broke their phone and everything is gone. You have to start over. No one lists their number in phonebooks anymore. It’s almost impossible to get someone’s number that you don’t know. Phonebooks are basically obsoletely.

We’ve probably all also had the experience of a hard drive going bad and losing our saved files, you know, before the cloud. Bye bye photos and videos. Bye bye saved term papers. How do these things affect history? And how are these things a part of history? Research is affected, obviously. Digital data is tricky to preserve. You have to update software or find machines that can use old software, old storage disks, etc. You also have to figure out what to save and how to best preserve it for future access.

When I went to the archives this summer I searched through a lot of old correspondence. People sent letter to each other, but they also kept a “onionskin” copy. So you can see both sides of the conversation in the archive, you can see the paper trail. Email saves that stuff too, but how do you archive email? How do official organizations saves those records? Technology has made life so much better and easier but it complicates things, too. These are among the issues we have to consider as historians in the digital age, but also as everyday people trying to preserve our own memories.

Digital history is personal for a lot of us. We have our own history of social networks and email addresses, of old messages and photos, old blogs posts, etc. We also have our history of websites. Can you think back to websites that you used to love but have changed or don’t really exist? Do you  remember Homestar Runner? It was big when I was in high school. Did you know there are a few projects building a history of the internet? Have you heard of the Wayback Machine?  They have over 400 billion archived websites. You can go in and visit a popular website on a specific date in the past to see what it looked like. The Internet seems to be a place in constant flux. We might not notice little updates, but over time websites and things have radically changed. The Wayback Machine is one way for us to go back and see change over time.

So what’s the point here? I wanted my students to think about the next phase in history. I wanted them to think about how they interact with history and make history, make documents, every day. The Library of Congress is archiving every public Tweet. Which can be really cool for historian 50 years from now, but also kind of scary for college students Tweeting about their lives. The Library of Congress also put together a Personal Digital Archiving Kit a few years ago. It offers resources on personal digital archiving for the general public. It’s mostly a collection of important tips and strategies for preserving digital files, photos, videos, emails and social media accounts. They encourage people to host parties and workshops to help spread the word about personal digital archiving you are raising awareness to these ever changing formats, technologies and techniques. Preservation is important and requires an active role by all of us, especially in the digital age. I joked that even if we fail to preserve everything, the NSA seems to be doing a good job of collecting our data. Perhaps their massive public spying program can double as a new National Archives of personal digital data.

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So we looked at history from four angels: 1) Historical Events they lived through, 2) Historic sites and places, 3) Personal History, and 4) Digital History. What’s the takeaway?

Obviously we study history to be good citizens. To learn about our government and how we got to where we are. To see how things have changed over time. We learn history to honor our past — national figures, veterans, and even relatives. We learn history to win bar bets and know fun-facts, too. But I think a lot of this all comes back to knowing who we are and where we’re from.

Learning history also helps us think about the world around you in different ways. One of the reasons I assigned the Contest Waters book on the history of swimming pools was because I wanted my students to understand that everything has a history, and everything is affected by history. The book did a wonderful job of illustrating this and my student’s essays really bare that out. As this class ends, that’s one of the main things I hope they take away.

I also want them take away the idea that it’s about them. History is theirs. I recall repeating the phrase “History is yours” several times in the last lecture. It’s something that they’ve inherited it and they’re going to contribute to it. It’s important to know what they’re inheriting. There is a lot of promise in American history, a lot of success, but there’s also some problems, disagreements, and unfortunate stains. But this is our history; it’s theirs and mine, its ours. I encouraged my students to take ownership of history.

We’ll all contribute to it in various ways — voting, running for office, having children, donating money, or just being a part of community. Being a friend and sharing your life with someone can be very significant, too. We all have those friends, teachers, neighbors, whoever, that we remember fondly. As the inheritors and writers of this history, we can use our knowledge of the past to help make changes. History is ours to shape.

During the course I had them write questions for the exams, part of this is because I’m lazy, part of it is because it’s a good way to help them study, but it’s also a way to make history theirs. To give them a say on what they think it important and significant. By writing the questions, they were telling me what they value.

* * *

In the end, this exploration of history from four different angles was a reflection on what history means to me and why I think it’s important. It’s also a reflection on what history looks like outside of the classroom. I wanted my students to understand that history is real, it’s all around them, it’s a part of who they are and they will be and are a part of it, too. Each angle helps illustrate those ideas. They three major takeaways of my class were 1) history is real, 2) everything has a history, and everything is affected by history, and 3) history is theirs (history is yours). As a 100-level, general education, survey class I felt like it was my responsibility to show them how and why history is important. Since this might be the only history class many of them take, I also wanted to give them a few ways that they can use the class to look at the world differently. I think this last mediation on how “History is Personal” really accomplished that and hit home for a lot of them.

This last lecture was one of my favorites to give. It was deeply personal for me not only because I shared my family history but also because I bared my soul and passion for history. I explained who I am and why I’m a historian. It paid off. They responded really well and a few started clapping at the end. I enjoyed the back and forth of sharing experiences and ideas with my students. Seeing them nod their heads as they made connections and soaked in the personal components of history. These reactions validated the semester of hard work and stress, and confirmed that I made the right decision to pursue a career in teaching and research.

Sports News Round Up

When I started this blog, I originally hoped to offer some commentary on current events and major stories in the sporting world. I’ve failed miserably at this goal. Instead of offering excuses, here are a few brief summaries of my take on some recent stories/issues.

Catfishing Manti Te’o

This story broke, quite appropriately, the same week I was reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. So, as you might expect, my initial reactions to this revelations of his fake girlfriend were tinted with notions of gender performativity. I wrote a brief reaction paper combining to the two for my Gender and Technology course, but much has changed since then. Initially I was skeptical of Te’o’s own role in the scandal. I wondered it if was a cover up for latent homosexuality, something that is frowned upon in the football world and both the Mormon and Catholic churches. The hoax would make sense in this light and within Butler’s description of gender, because he would have been using the Twitter girlfriend as “performance.” To be sure, there are still some interesting developments here with the hoaxer recently admitting he fell for Te’o and was questioning his own sexuality. And, I still haven’t fully bought into the explanations offered by both Te’o and Notre Dame.

However, beyond this concern there are a couple more interesting ways to approach and interpret the story. Returning to the issue of gender, the hoax can be seen as the objectification of women via technology to create a gender performance manipulated and used by males to craft a specific narrative. As Butler reminds us, gender is separate from the doer is perfectly illustrated. There does not have to be a doer for there to be agency, thus the fabrication subordinates and manipulates gender for dominant hegemonic purposes.

Beyond issues of gender, are what I think are prompts to fascinating conversations about journalism and digital literacy. Why weren’t sports journalists more thorough in their investigations? What role did Notre Dame and other media outlets play in perpetuating these narratives? If Te’o was he truly duped, how can we prevent further such situations and educate people about online cultures and environments. I was especially reminded of this when listening to the Notre Dame Athletic Director’s comments about the situation. Seemed clueless and in over his head at times. To me, this reinforces our need for digital literacy and competency as integral parts of educating people. Both in terms of social networks and mass media, but also in other areas. And within various digital cultures and sub-cultures, the concept of gender performativity, as well as other humanities theories, seems like especially useful tools look at and evaluate the use of technology and their social-cultural creations online.

How and why does Cheating matter?

I’ve been working on a stand-alone post about for several months. Each week it seems we learn something new. A new admission, twist, and layer of the story. Cheating has been in the news quite a bit lately. So frequently, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if it even matters. Why do we care? Does it really change the way view and think about professional sports? Where do we draw the line between seeking a competitive advantage and cheating?

Over the last decade the United States government has been obsessed with finding and prosecuting cheaters in professional sports. Congress has commissioned reports and held hearings. They’ve spent millions of dollars and countless hours trying to pin down evidence and catch people in lies. All for what? For a clean moral conscious? To guard against the ills of dishonesty? Most people agree that cheating is wrong. But rarely do we discuss how and why is it wrong.

Major League Baseball considers using “performance enhancing drug” cheating. They recently banned the San Francisco Giants Melky Cabrera, who was 2012 All Stag Game MVP, and the Oakland Athletics Bartolo Colon 50 games each for a positive drug tests. Yet, MLB’s assault on cheating is fairly new. Steroids were not banned in the league until 1991. It wasn’t until a decade later, in 2003, that they actually began testing players. Track and field has been out infront of the crowd in its vigilance about catching and prosecuting cheaters. Marion Jones gave up her gold medals and went to jail. Justin Gatlin was banned for several of his prime years after repeat offenses. Recently, Lance Armstrong finally admitted he is a “cheater,” albeit in a somewhat disingenuous way.

As a historian of sport, eventually I’ll have to address the cheating situation. I’m sure there will be some interesting studies 15 – 20 years from now contextualizing the likes of Bonds, Clemens, Armstrong, and Jones with the era of Enron, insider trading, and government bailouts. After all, capitalism is all about finding the most efficient ways to make profits. Unregulated capitalism often results in ‘corruption’ a.k.a. dishonesty and cheating. Are the actions of the players trying to more efficiently improves their skills/performance so they can earn more money in contracts and endorsements any different?

The more I think about it, context matters. Today we knowingly joke that all of the Eastern European countries were doping at the Olympic during the Cold War. In the not-so-distant future, I think we’ll also look at 1994-2003 as the ‘Steroid Era’ of baseball. We’ll see Lance Armstrong as the best of the cheaters (since many of his competitors have actually been found guilty).  I’m personally not a fan of asterisks or stripping medals and records because I think contexts and facts speak for themselves. To be sure, performance enhancing drugs changed the narratives, and we must talk about them, but we can’t go back and change or erase the facts, only explain them. Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs in his career, and 73 in one season. Nothing can change that. We can’t un-live those moments. You cannot erase history, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles after nearly dying from cancer. He started an enormously successful charity to support cancer survivors (although it appears it offers little funding for scientific research). Did he use performance enhancing drugs? Yes. Is his story any less inspiring? I don’t think so.

I actually think the Bonds and Armstrong are more interesting people given their “cheating.” They’ve become contested figures within their sports and their eras. Armstrong was a giant dick. He ruined people’s lives with lawsuit when he knew he cheated. He developed a pseudo-shill organization to cover his ass. Offered money/donation type bribes to drug testing entities. These are fascinating stories.

The job of a historian is to look at how and why events happened. What caused the steroid era? Was the decision done by individual players, or were coaches and team owners involved? What were the goals of cheating? How did they cheat? Did they use existing drugs and methods or innovate? If they innovated, did these new experiments and tests contribute medicine or science beyond sports? What was the reaction of the media, fans, and their competitors? Did the cheating work? It’s also important to consider alternatives. What would have happened to Lance Armstrong if he didn’t cheat? Where would he be? What would he be doing? Would he have won? How would we view cycling and the Tour de France? Likewise, we must ask about the investigations. Why did Congress view cheating as a problem? Did their probes result in any real changes? Who’s job is it to define and legislate cheating rules? Is it a legal issue, a moral issue, a game/league specific issue? Are there parallels or cultural aspects of cheating in non-sports areas? Is cheating a pandemic in business, education, etc.?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they are important to consider when thinking about “cheaters” and sports. They help us get beyond the assumptions we often make about cheating. Whether or not you care about cheating/performance enhancing drugs, these issues are relevant to broader society. Especially when you consider the haste given to the judgment of sports cheaters (most notably seen in the 2013 baseball hall of fame vote) compared to those in the 2008 financial collapse.

Violence in Football

President Obama recently said that  he’d “have to think long and hard” before letting his son play football, if he had a son. “I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence,” he continued.

Violence in football has been a major story most of the season. Junior Seau’s family has joined a suit against the NFL, NFL films, and various helmet manufacturers citing negligence and the encouragement of violent hits that cause brain and mental health issues. During this most recent NFL season, several pundits have questioned both the continual play and rest of players who have suffered hits. RGIII incited national debates about his durability. So did Alex Smith as his concussion and recovery time forced a quarterback controversy that resulted in him losing his job. Some questioned whether Smith would have benefited by hiding the concussion to retain his job. They used it as an example where following new safety procedures work against players. While the 49ers situation is an outlier, it is a serious concern.

I only played football during junior high. And even then I was too small to get much playing time. I am, however, a fan of the sport. I’m even considering a dissertation about the college game. My brother, on the other hand, was a terrific football player. He played middle linebacker in high school and earned the reputation of one of his teams hardest hitters. We often discuss the issues of concussions and injuries. He’s admitted that it is hard for him to watch the game now knowing the toll it takes on players bodies and the long term impact. Watching players actively shorten their lives on a weekly basis is just not appealing to him.

So what’s the deal with football? Almost 110 years after Teddy Roosevelt’s conference on college sports which spurred on the creation of the NCAA, we’re still seeing many of the same issues. Is the sport doomed or will another round of reform save it? This is a difficult question to ask. Direct deaths are hard to prove in the modern game. Likewise, it’s become close to a billion dollar industry. Will economics outweigh player safety, especially when the game is utilized as an uplifting tool for a large number of minority players? For me this is a fascinating story of history cycling back through old debates that were never settled. It brings up questions of labor and safety, welfare, science, medicine, race and economics, as well as media spin. Is violence in the NFL the end of the Strenuous Life? Or will Obama channel his progressive rhetoric to offer new remedies for the violent game that help maintain the glorification of American manhood?

Paying NCAA Athletes

This is perhaps one of the most contentious issues facing sports. The NCAA has finally admitted it needs reform. A major lawsuit is underway by former players saying they deserve to be compensated for selling their likeness to video games companies, their names to apparel manufacturers, and the use of their labor for media contracts and fundraising. Previous decisions about the ability of athletes to be considered as employees entitled to workman’s compensation for injury are starting to be reconsidered too. What’s fair? How do we share the wealth generated by ‘amateur’ athletes for big-time universities and their governing body? Scholarships aren’t enough for cost of living. The allegedly “free” education is no where near market value compared the money brought athletes in by the revenue sports.

Should athletes be paid? Should college sponsor athletic teams? What does/should reform look like? These questions have been a part of debates for a while, and are difficult to answer.

I’m personally in favor of a far less big-time system. But I admit that is fairly idyllic. While I hate the exploitation of college athletes in an indentured servant like system, the idea of paying athletes doesn’t make much sense to me either. The numbers just don’t add up when you take into account Title IX and the subsidies from universities to athletic departments. There are a lot of myths about college sports, and one of the biggest is that they make money.

I had a recent debate with a friend about this subject. He is a former NCAA D-1A football player and like many sports writers and pundits he thought sports made money for universities. He asked me a pretty straight forward question about the situation: How much money do you think each student-athlete makes for the universities (ie, having a team for which to sell tickets, merchandise, TV contracts, etc.) compared to tuition costs per student?

After a bit of research, I offered him my view. While I admitted that I’d never seen the exact numbers, and that they’d probably pretty difficult to quantify and measure given the differing level of revenue amongst NCAA FBS athletic programs, there have been a few studies that provide a general idea. According to USA Today in 2009-10, “22 of the 228 Division I public schools generated enough money from media rights contracts, ticket sales, donations and other sources (not including allocated revenue from institutional or government support or student fees) to cover their expenses.” So in general colleges most don’t even make money to cover their own expenses, let alone to contribute back to the university. A recent Inside Higher-Ed article noted that median subsidy for FBS schools from universities ranged from $7.7 million to $8.5 million. So based on those numbers alone, it suggests that most athletes via their athletic departments make no direct contribution to the university. Many, but not all, colleges use student fees to support athletic programs, however, as seen in the subsidy.

The point I think he was trying to get at, is whether sports team act as marketing tools themselves to attract students and more tuition dollars, as well as more donation money. While they very well could, I’ve never seen a definitive study to suggest that either way. To return to his original question, only 13% of students in college attend for-profit universities. This means that most colleges are not-for-profit entities and so at these schools tuition from non-athlete students is used entirely for educational expenses and operating costs. While the numbers vary, in the UC system, student tuition and fees are about 13% of the total operating budget, but 48% of their “core operation funds.” Of those “core operation funds,” 30% goes to academic salaries, 23% to staff salaries, 14% to employee & retirement benefits, 14% to financial aid, and 18% to equipment & utilities (this is based on 2010-11 budget). So, basically, at least in the UC system, students contribute nearly half the operating costs of the universities, while athletics contribute nothing. Obviously, this is difficult to generalize across all the Div 1 schools, but I think it’s a solid example of the problem of paying student-athletes when sports are already a drain on university funding.

This should not be read as me being anti-college sports. I’m far from it. I love college athletics, but I’m definitely in favor of self-sustaining athletic departments. If they can contribute money back to the university, even better. What I’m not in favor of is using student fees and tuition to suppor big-time sports. I think doing so is contrary to the mission of higher ed. I think it’s an entirely different argument if you want to talk about the “intangible” benefits that can’t be factored into the numbers, like marketing of schools and name recognition, community pride, etc. It’s hard to grasp those. But, I’ve seen some numbers linking sports teams to donations. The last ones I saw showed a slight decline in nonathletic donation, while sports donations increased 75%, which to the author of the study suggested in some cases sports donations increased at the expense of academic donations.

These are all interesting issues. And while I don’t have a clear solution, its something I like to monitor and study. I do think athletes need to be more fairly compensated, and the expansion/explosion of TV money can help fuel that. But paying athletes will only work, legally with Title IX, and financially with education remaining the central purpose of a university, if we focus on paying everyone through a self-sustaining athletic department. Paying only revenue athletes violates Title IX, and paying everyone without requiring self-sustaining sports programs only further diverts money away from academics (the reason universities exist) to sports.

I hope this brief Sports News Round Up has been interesting and provided some new perspectives and food for thought regarding major stories and issues currently being debated. I try to approach these issues with a bit of a historical perspective that takes into account a variety of issues and perspectives that aren’t always considered. Feel free to agree, disagree, or offer alternative opinions and viewpoints. One of the great things about sports and sports history are that they offer a lens to view and discuss important issues in American culture in a tangible and accessible way.

MOOCMOOC Reflection Photo Assignment

ImageThis is my reflection photo about my experience in MOOCMOOC so far for Valerie’s Partipant Pedagogy lesson. 

My items are: binoculars, a key, a harddrive, and the book, The Travels of Marco Polo. I chose these items to represent my travels and discoveries related to technology and information, teaching and learning, and the keys to being a better educator.