Women’s History Week 2015!

Women's History Week @LUIf you want to know what’s been consuming my life for much of the past month (besides mountains of marking, a conference presentations and many other responsibilities) it’s Women’s HIstory Week. Twenty-two years and counting, this event has been a feature on our campus. So what are you waiting for?

Join us on campus and downtown for Women’s History Week 2015 at Laurentian University / semaine de l’histoire des femmes 2015. Click either link for the full schedule of events.

We have open classrooms all week long, a book launch and a keynote lecture by Dr. Jane Nicholas of St. Jerome’s University and author of The Modern Girl, who will speak on “Why the Flapper Matters: TWomen's HIstory Week Eventshe Canadian Modern Girl” Thursday night, 7pm at the Speakeasy downtown. How perfectly appropriate is that for a venue?

I’m also excited about the open classrooms initiative that is a long-time feature of our event. There are faculty participants from Communications, Environmental Studies, History, English, Ancient Studies and more who have agreed to open their classrooms to the wider public this week. Fellow students, staff members and other profs might just pop on in as well as any one interested in seeing how the subject of women is taught across disciplines at Laurentian.

The book launch celebrates the recent biography of Madge Watt, founder of the Women’s Institutes, published by our own Dr. Linda Ambrose who brought Women’s History Week into being as well as nurturing students and scholarship in the field over the past twenty-two years.

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Hot Fuzz & History (this Wednesday)

I’m pleased Hot Fuzz and History 30 Sept, 11:30 to announced that my esteemed colleague, Dr. Dave Leeson is helping to launch the 2015-16 season of our colloquia with his exciting talk: “This Doesn’t Make Any Sense: Hot Fuzz & the Philosophy of History”. Come join us in Laurentian University’s Parker Building (the Tower), L-324, at 11:30 on Wednesday, September 30.

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The Joys of a Good Teaching Text

Wednesday we’re back into the routine with three courses on tap for me this fall: Western Civilization (Renaissance to French Revolution), Early Medieval Europe and a graduate seminar on London history. Al told, I think I’m squeaking in with just under a hundred students in the three courses: still the most of any one faculty member in our program. Go me?

I’m really excited about all three classes but particularly happy with the prospect of this year’s go in Western Civ. The subject is something I’ve taught almost every year since starting but it’s a course that constantly renews itself given the hundreds of years of history and historical studies I draw upon. This year I’m doing something unusual for myself – I’m teaching with all three of the same texts as last year: two general survey narratives that cover our period from 1350-1815 and one primary source work, The Lusiads.

Normally The Lusiads - Oxford World ClassicsI swap out primary source texts every year to keep teaching fresh (and to minimize the chance of plagiarism). But The Lusiads was such a fun work to teach and had so many intriguing aspects to it that last year’s class had only begun to explore, I felt compelled to give it another turn. The Lusiads is Portugal’s great national epic and a conscious throwback to Virgil’s great Roman poem, The Aeneid. Yet it’s also very contemporary for the sixteenth century in which it was written: telling the tale of Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of Africa and travels to India.

The epic poem, ably translated into modern verse by Landeg White, has just about everything you could want to touch on in an introduction to European history for the period: there are themes that draw on Renaissance conceits (classical gods, learned allusion), elements of religious conflicts (Christian divisions and prejudice towards other religions), the broad sweep of exploration, discovery and exploration in da Gama’s voyages, and all brought together with innovations in technology, worldviews and social orders. Relatively little-studied in the anglophone world, I found that teaching with this text was a great refresher for the course which might otherwise feel ‘stale’ and I can’t wait to tackle it again with a better sense of the pitfalls and promises inherent in such an unusual text!

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How Empires Endure: TFA and History #3

A brashly overconfident emperor Emperor Valens, d. 378races to spring a trap on his foes and ends up falling in battle to a ragtag group of unsophisticated adversaries. This isn’t just the (highly condensed!) story of The Return of the Jedi‘s climax, it’s also the story of the Battle of Adrianople, in 378. There, the Roman Emperor Valens presided over the annihilation of sixteen regiments of Roman soldiers: two-thirds of the Eastern army. Of Valens, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote: “he was ready to gain advantage and profit at the expense of others’ suffering, and more intolerable when he attributed offences that were committed to contempt of, or injury to, the imperial dignity; then he vented his rage in bloodshed.” (The Roman History, Book XXXI, Chapter 5)

A bad emperor, he was less skillful than Palpatine, Emperor Palpatinewho perished during the Battle of Endor, victim of his own overweening confidence in the power of the Dark Side and the Death Star.

Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design. Your friends, up there on the sanctuary moon, are walking into a trap, as is your Rebel fleet. It was *I* who allowed the Alliance to know the location of the shield generator. It is quite safe from your pitiful little band. An entire legion of my best troops awaits them. Oh, I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive. — Emperor Palpatine, The Return of the Jedi

But whether capable or not, both emperors died and dealt a great blow to the empire that they ruled. However, was it the end of the empire? If we follow Adrianople, history tells us that, no, the death of a ruler in battle doesn’t guarantee the end of his empire.

To the contrary, Rome’s empire far outlasted Valens’ own humiliating end at Adrianople. Goths and Romans at Adrianople(Depending on which account you prefer, he either perished of an arrow wound in battle or retreated to a stone building near the field which the enemies, seeking to overrun, then burned down with all in it.) 378 saw his co-emperor, Gratian, rally the empire with the assistance of a new co-emperor, Theodosius I. Constantinople, the imperial capital, withstood a Gothic assault and endured for over a thousand years longer as the empire’s chief city.

While Coruscant seemingly celebrated the empire’s overthrow in the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, in truth, what happened to the imperial fleet and its ruler at the Battle of Endor Space ships at the Battle of Endorwas hardly a game-changer. Even with many imperial ships destroyed and the new Death Star obliterated, what the Alliance defeated was only a portion of a vast, well-supplied and deeply entrenched imperial force. All of those planets, all of those starships and bases, all of those forces ready to rally at the call of the emperor or someone invoking his authority? It would be easy for the Empire to endure.

We’re already seeing from casting information and spoiler discussion that, in The Force Awakens, the Empire is not forgotten, even many years after the battle. New stormtroopers fight on behalf of an imperial cause that is further supported by a Force-sensitive warrior. With generals and Sith, it’s easy to expect that a new emperor will also arise. . . .

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Student Depression: More Than Helicopter Parenting

You’ve seen the story making the rounds amongst parents and academics that correlates helicopter parenting with college-age depression. You might well have nodded along as you read the horrific stories of awful parents who dictate their kids’ university choice, major and even study habits. These are truly wrong-headed individuals who, by micro-managing their children’s lives well into adulthood, deprive them of the chance to learn how to be independent, self-reliant and find their own happiness.

That said, I take issue with a big part of the article’s claims.

As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?

You’re right to be thinking Yes, but do we know whether overparenting causes this rise in mental health problems? The answer is that we don’t have studies proving causation, but a number of recent studies show correlation.

The emphasis is that of Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the book from which the article is an excerpt. The former freshman dean at Stanford candidly admits that she knows this overactive parenting culture all too well and frequently has fallen into some of the bad habits she herein decries. I’m good with anything that helps to counter the scourge of parents who treat twenty-somethings as toddlers or leads to mom or dad buttonholing profs and TAs over what’s properly the student’s turf. And don’t get me started on that smooth rhetorical slide right past the whole correlation line because we all know correlation is not causation, right? Right!

In any case, I’m troubled by the easy equation of depression in college-aged people with the evils of helicopter parenting. Yes, that can be one factor, but is it the only or even the best? I’d say no. There’s a whole raft of reasons for the youth of today to be profoundly depressed. It’s the economy, stupid! We’re destroying the planet and waging war worldwide. Even if we focus in those problems directly affecting colleged-aged people who are actually going to college, there’s still enough fodder for a real-world dystopian Hunger Games: ruinous tuition increases, student debt that’s impossible to discharge, gutted support for students, dismal job prospects and political leaders enthusiastically dismantling public higher education. Oh, that’s cheerful, isn’t it? Let’s not forget how these young people have been hemmed in by decades of “No Child Left Behind” and other onerous testing regimes in their school lives, or communities that eagerly police the practices of “free-range” parenting. When students revolt against standardized tests, how are we surprised?

But ignore that man behind the curtain, Dorothy. No, look at the bad parents here and there. Why, they’re the cause of this whole problem! Let’s just get them to change their behaviour and, sure as shooting, young, crestfallen folk across the continent will start to perk up.

That’s ridiculous! This is a small fix for only a tiny slice of a big problem. But it’s easy, ridiculously easy, to stir up popular disgust with painful parenting practices such as those described in the story. Nobody can justify those excesses, but nobody can sustain the argument this helicopter parenting the key to the real mental health crises on university and college campuses or in those peer groups beyond the ivory tower.

Depression is an illness but there are people who can help you. Depression is serious, depression is real and depression isn’t banished by condemning over-the-top parenting practices. We need to accept that helping young people manage their mental health takes resources, commitment and actually paying real attention to their concerns.

So let’s stop feeling as if condemning one particular brand of bad parenting is what we need to do to support students with their mental health issues, okay? Thanks.


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True Patriot What Ifs

What really differentiates Americans from Canadians? We celebrate our grand national holidays almost simultaneously in early July. We share the better part of a continent and that very long, under-defended border. We watch much of the same TV shows (albeit with the annoyances of geo-location denials on websites) and movies. Wind, rain and snow crosses back and forth across the border with abandon and it’s often hard to tell where one country begins and the other ends if you’re crossing the wooded eastern reaches or trekking through the prairies.

A recent article by Dylan Matthews offered Three Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake, zeroing in on the weaknesses of presidential democracy, the likelihood of an earlier end to slavery under British law and the slightly less awful Canadian record of First Nations abuses as ways in which an America without the revolution would be a better place. Over at Historiann’s, she’s taken up Matthews’ points and added a few other accolades of her own.

So is Canada the very picture of oppression? Far from it! In fact, Canada is a nation that offered its citizens national health insurance nearly seventy years ago; they had a woman Prime Minister more than twenty years ago; and while rates of gun ownership are high (they’re #13 vs. the U.S., which is #1 in the world), the risk of gun homicide (let alone random mass-murder) is quite low. Furthermore, equality before the law is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including sex and disability, two categories of people–more than half the population–not included in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.

What reasonable person wouldn’t prefer Canada to the U.S.?

Aw, shucks, Historiann. You’ll put us all to blush and you know how apologetic Canadians can be in any case. Consider it doubled or double-double (I’ll spring for you at Tim’s).

Seriously, I have to agree that Canada is awesome. Otherwise, why would I have come north almost thirty years ago (this coming Labour Day weekend) and taken up Canadian citizenship early in this millennium? Okay, well, obviously, love for my dear spouse factored in mightily, but also love for this slightly more peaceful part of North America.

That said, I’d have to take issue with some of Matthew’s claims about the benefits of avoiding the American Revolution because, well, counterfactuals don’t work that way. You can’t be certain that because the British abolished slavery in the 1830s America would have been freed of slavery a generation ahead of the Civil War. Some scholars suggest that slavery was the most significant root cause of the Revolution in the 1770s. Others have pointed out that the British both supported slaves against their masters and held out hopes of retaining the southern, slave-dependent states during the course of the colonial contretemps.

Against Matthews’ rosy suggestions of a Canadianized USA, the picture becomes much more hazy. For instance, I have difficulty dismissing the southern states as an impotent rump within British imperial politics in the 1830s in our counterfactual Revolutionless timeline. To keep the colonials within the empire in 1776 wouldn’t have been without cost. Concessions and new connections might have shifted the balance of power in significant ways, possibly strengthening the southern hand within imperial politics. Might this have served to embolden them to armed rebellion at the whisper of legislation of abolition in London in the following decades? Or maybe we would see the change coming from the enslaved multitudes, perhaps rising out of a Caribbean context where, unmediated by American and French revolutionary exemplars, uprisings could have skipped across the sea to those slave states and inspired a real crisis not just in the colonies but back in Britain?

You know that I love counterfactual history something seriously. “What if” makes for interesting thought experiments that historians need in their toolboxes but it’s not either/or. We aren’t faced with the choice of either our current USA or our current Canadian situation if something in the past had gone differently. If history had zigged rather than zagged in 1776, we’d be living with the long range consequences playing out in ways that casual contrast just doesn’t cover. And who knows whether or not we’d have our Tim Hortons?

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Dark Relics: TFA and History #2

One of the most visually arresting moments in The Force Awakens trailer had to be the image of Darth Vader’s iconic helmet. Darth Vader's battered helmet But it’s more than the helmet itself, it’s what it implies. Examine the still closely – see how the worn helmet isn’t just shown on the remains of the pyre? No, this helmet has been carefully retrieved and preserved. It is a relic, a relic of the Empire. And relics have a long history in our own world. Maybe their stories will add some insight into what’s going on as we await the seventh movie.

What is a relic? To a historian of Christianity, a relic is either actual remains or an artifact associated with a holy person. For instance, you could have a relic being a thorn from the crown that Jesus wore at his crucifixion or the bones of a saint, carefully preserved centuries after her or his death. Relics were preserved in churches but were also treasured by individuals who often sought out these significant remains. For instance, in the fourth century, St. Helena, St. Helena (15th c. illumination)mother to Emperor Constantine, discovered the True Cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The relic was revered not only for the historic connection, but for its miraculous powers, in this case, to revive the dead. Throughout history, relics not only memorialized the founders and great figures of the faith; relics also offered worshippers a chance to connect with the divine and the miracles that such a connection might offer. Many wealthy individuals collected relics or, at the very least, sought to visit and draw on their power.

Some relics were as gruesome as Vader’s half-destroyed helmet, even more so. Bits of bone, hair and teeth were treasured by faithful followers. Many were housed in the most extravagant and sometimes macabre housings known as reliquaries, such as this Reliquary Bustbust of St. Yrieix, crafted in the thirteenth century to preserve a fragment of the saint’s centuries-old remains. In the trailer clip, Vader’s helmet appears with less ostentation but clearly some care. Perhaps a supporter of the empire’s restoration sought out the remains and plans to wield them for a Force-driven miracle or to inspire the masses?

Relics had great power in the medieval world, no Force needed! Believers trekked across the continent of Europe and beyond on pilgrimages often to have a chance to view or touch a relic. One of the most famous pilgrimage destinations was Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This UNESCO Heritage site was first popularized in the ninth century for preserving the remains of the apostle James. Over the centuries, a great cathedral and a host of other buildings arose to celebrate the holy power and also to serve the thousands of pilgrims who flocked there. From the trailer clip, it appears that Endor doesn’t play this role for those who have retrieved Vader’s remains. Who that is remains a mystery at this point: possibly the faithful followers of the First Order or one driven individual who seeks to wield miraculous powers wakened from Vader’s remains? In any case, I predict that Vader’s helmet will be employed like a medieval relic to inspire someone who seeks to restore the empire and the power of the Dark Side.

For more on medieval relics and reliquaries, see the Treasures of Heaven online exhibit or the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History’s Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity.


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