Posts Tagged ‘History Faculty’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Many people undoubtedly have found it strange how much history has been in the news lately. Whether it is the Confederate monuments being taken down in New Orleans or the fact that Frederick Douglass and Andrew Jackson were trending on Twitter recently, historical topics are hot right now. But truthfully, Americans have always been contentious about our history, since our history is…well…contentious. Topics like the Civil War or Jackson’s role in ‘The Trail of Tears’ will spark lively, sometimes angry, disagreement.

However, there are certain historical events that mainstream Americans generally agree upon. One such non-contentious event is the Holocaust. The American public, pop-culture and politicians for the last 40 years have universally depicted the Holocaust as THE horrific event of modern times. Case closed.  No discussion needed.  For 20th century Americans, Nazi Germany has been the quintessential ‘bad guy’ of  history. We have taken this so far that the era of the Holocaust and the event itself is in danger of being portrayed in simplistic political bromides. It is easy, if no less true and unthinking, to state that Nazi Germany and Hitler were irredeemably evil. The murder of Europe’s Jews was Nazi Germany’s most horrendous crime. Who would argue with that?

This is why the last four months have been so disturbing.  Since taking power in January, the Trump Administration has had not one…but TWO ‘Holocaust’ controversies.  First, there was the strange, and evidently intentional, Holocaust Remembrance Day statement issued by President Trump which did not specify Nazi Germany’s specific war on European Jewry. Then, in April, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stuck his foot in his mouth by claiming that Hitler ‘didn’t even gas his own people’, unlike Syrian President al-Assad. After immediately being called on this outrageously false statement, Spicer sounded even more like an idiot when he referred (I assume) to extermination camps as ‘Holocaust centers’.

What is going on?  Some, like Holocaust historian and famous scholar of Holocaust denial Debra Lipstadt felt that the Trump White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement was a classic case of ‘soft denialism’.  On the other hand, most commentators believed that Spicer’s slip-ups simply pointed to incredible historical ignorance. However, such ignorance and ‘soft denialism’ are not mutually exclusive.  Whether or not Lipstadt is correct in her assessment of Trump’s statement, such ‘denialism’ does exist in certain corners, and it will become easier to peddle to the general public as their inevitable ignorance of the past created by passing time increases.

‘Never forget’ can easily become an unthinking slogan, but that makes it no less true. So, with these notions in mind, I feel it is important to provide a quick reading list of books all Americans should read about the Holocaust. These are 15 works that any one with a passing interest in the topic can pick and read today.

  1. Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1 and The Years of Persecution and Volume 2, The Years of Extermination. Friedländer’s highly readable classic account. A great place to start for a thorough overview.515XRWk2Q6L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_
  2. Peter Hayes, Why: Explaining the Holocaust. A book that was just published a couple months ago. Deals with the big ‘why’ questions people always ask regarding the Holocaust. Does so with clear, jargon-free language. Read this after Friedländer’s workhayes
  3. Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis. Kershaw’s massive two part biography is still generally considered to be the definitive explanation of Hitler’s life and worldview.kershaw
  4. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  Though 30 years old at this point, still a groundbreaking take on why people commit ‘evil’ acts.browning
  5. Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience.  Sereny was a journalist who had the opportunity to interview Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka.  Her book investigating the man is fascinatingly horrible.sereny
  6. Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. A recent book that sheds light on a topic ignored by many previous historians: Women’s role in genocide.lower
  7. Primo Levi, Survival at Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved.  An Italian Jew, Levi survived the war and produced some of the most important writings of the 20th century.the-complete-works-of-primo-levi-book-cover
  8. Viktor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 2 Volumes.  Klemperer was a German Jew who chronicled life in Nazi Germany from the beginning of 1933 until the end of the war.  The amazing story of his survival will make you forget the 1000 pages.klemperer
  9. Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus. I wrote a blog about this work a couple years ago. It is a graphic novel, and though that may seem like a strange genre for a Holocaust memoir, I believe it is required reading.maus
  10. Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.  If you are looking to find out about the horror, structure and ubiquity of the Nazi camps, this is the new definitive text.images
  11. Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial. Though Hannah Arendt’s classic Eichmann in Jerusalem is still important on a philosophical level, Lipstadt deals with the true history of the trial. She also illustrates a historically accepted truth that Arendt missed. Eichmann was not really banal, but he was evil.lipstadt
  12. Daniel Mendolsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Mendolsohn is a famous literary critic. In The Lost, he provides a touching, beautiful memoir of discovering his family’s Holocaust past.TheLost_4.30
  13. Rich Cohen, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story. The story of Jewish resistance to Nazi crimes is still one not often told.  Cohen’s narrative tells the story of his grandmother who fought alongside Abba Kovner, the most famous Jewish partisan during the war.cohen
  14. Claude Lanzmann, Shoah. Technically, this is not a book. But, it is a text. Shoah is Lanzmann’s 8 hour film masterpiece.  Filmed in the early 1980s, Lanzmann interviewed victims, perpetrators and collaborators.  Most of the interviews are emotionally wrenching. It may take you a couple days to get through.Editors-Pick-Shoah
  15. Thomas Kühne, Genocide and Belonging: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945. This is the one specifically scholarly monograph I am adding to this list.  After reading and watching all of the above, tackle this one.kuhne

 

These books are accessible. They are readable. But they are not going to be ‘fun’. They can hit you in the gut, and leave you staggered.  That is what makes them all the more necessary.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The Spring of 1998.  Good times.  I was a fourth year college student at Michigan State. I was 21 years old. I was dating my future wife. My biggest concern was where I should go to graduate school.  Oh, and I had a cushy job in what was known as the MSU Microbiology Store.  For about 9 bucks an hour, I and a couple co-workers made sure

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Giltner Hall – Where the Microbiology Store was located

the Microbiology labs had enough supplies for…well, whatever Microbiology labs did.  It was quite easy, and I had a great deal of free time to study and keep up a nice solid GPA.

One day in late April, I came into the ‘office’ as my two coworkers were looking at The State News.  The student newspaper had a small story buried deep inside that had some bad news for a great number of students and alums.  The Board and President of the University had decided to disallow alcohol consumption on Munn Field, specifically during football tailgating.  I just shrugged off this story.  But, for my co-worker Adam this news was troubling.  You see, Adam (I can’t even remember his last name) wanted to be a politician. He was soon to graduate and was headed to DC to start graduate studies in Political Science.  Adam read this news as a 22 year old defender of democracy. He felt that the powers that be had passed this measure at the end of the school year specifically to avoid student input regarding the decision.  Adam believed this was unjust, and authoritarian.  He felt something needed to be done.

He decided to call for a protest rally.

Let me just stop for an aside. This was 1998. How do you get the word out about a SNlogoprotest to the community? There was only one week before finals started.  You couldn’t get that story to the student paper in time. The 50,000 students attending MSU would be home for the summer by the time The State News picked it up. Picket lines?  Flyers on campus?  None of these methods were going to have much effect.

Adam decided he was going to spread the word to a small group of students via email.  At that time, MSU had it’s own closed email server only for the campus population.  Adam, and my other co-worker Deborah, sent out their carefully crafted message ringing the tocsin. The initial message went out from two student email accounts to twenty friends in total.  One week from that day (a Friday) there would be a small protest on Munn Field.

The following Tuesday I headed to my political philosophy course. The course had roughly 90-100 students. As with most classes at MSU, I did not know a single person in the class.  As I sat down about 10 minutes before the class started, I heard a couple sorority girls next to me having a heated discussion. These girls said, ‘So, are you going to the protest at Munn Field Friday? My whole house (sorority) is going’!

Oh…my…God! Strangers were discussing the protest. How did they find out? That day, I went into work after class and told Adam. He had heard other people discussing it al well. The word was getting around, and Adam had lost control of the information. Friday’s planned protest  went from being a small hand-chosen meeting to being….well, we didn’t know what.

drinkingguidejpg-5fcad23e6601a3abThe Friday of the protest was cold and rainy.  As 7pm grew nearer, I was getting more and more nervous.  A couple friends and I decided we needed to trek over to Munn Field to see what was going to happen.  A couple days earlier, the Administration learned of the protest. The University wanted to put a stop to it.  The campus police took out an ad in The State News that warned about consequences for students ‘trespassing’ on Munn Field. Things were getting serious.  Walking over that Friday, I quickly realized thousands of others were heading out to do the same thing as me and my friends. The protest was no more. Now, it was just a gathering.

When I got to the field, a large crowd of students had already formed.  The police had fenced off the field with ‘No Trepassing’ signs. On the other side of the field, local police were lined up in their cars.  It wasn’t just a couple cops; police were out in force.  Of course, many students had already been drinking and it only took one student to climb the fence. A shirtless guy made the leap, ran out onto Munn Field and started to dive in the mud. Others followed. A couple guys started to throw a football around.  The police weren’t sure what to do.  As they started to move on the field, the students who had ‘trespassed’ jumped back into the big crowd of students outside the fence and disappeared.  It seemed the crowd might disperse.  Then, someone yelled that the crowd should march on the President’s house.  Sure, why not? Hundreds of students started to march.

At this point, I was done.  This was going nowhere. It was quickly turning into a waste of time. It was more of a roving party than a protest. I went back to my dorm room to get ready for finals on Monday. But, as I sat in my room, I could see police lights outside. Students were running down the halls of my dorm shouting.  Something big was happening out in the streets. Friends started to call me to give me updates. I heard the words ‘fires in the street’, ‘riot gear’ and ‘tear gas’.  No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening.  Finally, at midnight, I had to go outside and see for myself.  It was madness. A major bonfire had been lit in the middle of Grand River Avenue.   Police were in riot gear. Tear gas was in the air. My eyes starting watering and my throat was closing up.  There was nothing I could do, and I wasn’t going to get involved. I marched back inside my dorm and went to bed.

The events of the previous evening filled the newspapers the next day.  Amazingly, it wasn’t just the local media.  National organizations started to pick up the story. MSU students had ‘rioted’ for the freedom to drink beer!  A bunch of drunk idiots were shown burning couches and breaking windows. It was an embarrassment.

Adam hoped to change the University’s political methods. He wanted to give students a stronger voice. He hoped for a powerful display of direct democracy. Unfortunately, his protest turned into a farce.


This story flooded back to me recently for an interesting reason. I have been reading a good deal about social media lately as I begin preparations for a new ‘History of Social Media’ course at RMU.  The other day, I was speaking to a colleague at RMU who has a couple kids in college. We were discussing drinking and the college life, when I began to retell the above story.  But, as I told it I had a revelation.  Those of us who lived through that night at MSU, and the news media that covered the story,  missed the most revolutionary angle of the event. Nineteen years removed, this story is not about drinking, beer or riots; this story is about the viral nature of social media!

When Adam and Deborah wrote to their 20 friends on email, they had no idea what they were doing.  They believed they were inviting a handful of well versed, intelligent and serious students to make a show of structured resistance. In fact, they provided the university with a first taste of the Internet’s power.  Within a week, that email message did what viral information does; it spread exponentially.  It was a glimpse of our future. Twenty years on, and I realize that Adam’s protest did change the world.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. Every now and again I would have a student mention the Illuminati.  Once in awhile, a young man might argue that ‘9-11 was an inside job.’  Heck, one time a student even whispered to me in confidence that the Ebola virus was a creation of the American government.  When I asked that student what the purpose of such an invention would be, he told me very calmly that the government was trying to wipe out half of humanity.

How could I not scoff at such irrationality? Most people didn’t believe this stuff….right?  RIGHT? Such ideas would always be the territory of a small minority of Americans….right? RIGHT?

Well, maybe not.  Conspiracy theorists are boldly emerging out of their dark caverns. No longer found just on obscure chat-rooms, they now get the seat marked ‘expert’ on cable news’ shows. During the last decade or so, conspiracies have become disturbingly mainstream.

How did this happen?  Why did it happen now?  These are difficult questions to answer, and I will get to them eventually.  But first, I think some differences need to be identified. We need to categorize the types of theories sweeping our culture today.

Arguably, there are three main conspiracy theory categories.  Each share certain characteristics. None are to be encouraged, but only one has proven to be historically dangerous.  Unfortunately, the dangerous type has gained the most influence in recent years.  Here is a quick description, from most innocent, to most troubling:

  1. ‘Top Secrets’ Theories: These are the most commonly held conspiracy theories.  They center upon the notion that governments have secret, revolutionary information that they will not share with average citizens.  Of course, this is based upon a larger truth. ac992ee4bf0b19154f9c30554512c9adAll modern nation-states have ‘top secrets’ for acceptable eyes only. But, the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy theorist takes this truth to unlikely, or fantastic proportions. Hence, to him/her, the US government is not just hiding a new military aircraft at the local Air Force base; they are also hiding alien life-forms and/or space ships!   Or, the government weather satellites don’t truly STUDY the weather; instead, the satellites CONTROL the weather! It’s is okay to laugh. The conspiracy theorist might laugh with you.
  2. ‘Secret Power’ Theories: These conspiracy theories are not as common, but they are gaining a larger and larger foothold amongst American citizens. These theories are usually based upon arcane notions of power and influence. Conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs will argue that there is a secret group within a national eye_reasonably_small_400x400government (or multi-national organizations) that has undue, authoritarian power. This conspiracy may be connected to notions that there are world-wide government entities that control policy and have nefarious plans for either a utopian, or a dystopian future. The two most common groups associated with such conspiracy theories are the illuminati and/or freemasons. Both of these secret organizations have been connected to conspiracies for centuries.  For the conspiracy theorist, this historical tradition further proves the supposed conspiracy.  Though darker than the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy, there is still a heavy element of absurdity in the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracy.  Beyonce, the CIA and the Pope inexplicably work together to rule the world. Hmmm.
  3. ‘Apocalyptic Power’ Theories: These are the most dangerous conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs argue that a group of people, either large or small, is attempting to destroy the cultural, social and/or political world of the conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy theorist argues that he/she is not only ignorant of secrets, or out of the loop of secret power, he/she is actually a threatened victim of the conspirators. Usually, these conspiracies focus upon governments, but they also can tie into the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracies in the belief of a small cadre having control over levers of power. These conspiracies are the most dangerous because of their absolutist, zero-sum focus.  For the believers in these conspiracies, there is no middle ground. You either fight, or you die.  You gain your freedom, or become a slave. Every event that is read into the conspiracy is another sign of the endgame; the theorist’s world is believed to be crumbling down, and hence, it is only natural that violence may be necessary. Those who do not hold to these conspiracies then are more than ignorant sheep to be looked down upon. The person not accepting the conspiracy becomes part of the conspiracy.  This type of conspiracy theory promotes a Manichean notion of reality. The conspiracy theorist is not laughing. It is deadly serious to him/her.

In the next blog post, I will illustrate how some of these Apocalyptic conspiracies have caused historical tragedies, large and small. Then, I will investigate how and why these types of conspiracies are gaining such a foothold in our modern culture. To those who don’t believe, conspiracies can be funny, absurd or deluded. However, we should not underestimate the power of true believers.  History proves as much.

To be continued…..

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The announcement first came in German, then English: Next stop Dachau.

It was a beautiful sunny day in September. It was unseasonably warm; 80 degrees or so.

I stepped off the train and looked for the bus to take me to the KZ Dachau. I was in a hurry. I had to catch a night train to Rome that evening, and I wanted to get back to Munich to ‘flaneur’ around.  Luckily, there was a bus waiting. It was slowly filling with tourists. I was one of them. We had come to see the first Nazi Concentration Camp.  I hopped on the bus, and sat down.  As the bus pulled out, I  was struck with a sense of discordance. Dachua is not just a camp. It is a surburban enclave. It is….quaint. It is beautiful.

My imagination had not prepared me for what lay outside the bus window. Here was a supermarket, there was a small restaurant. People were walking dogs, enjoying the sun on 14330127_10207732700498004_3000411190714615599_npatios and drinking coffee at the local Starbucks.  The sun and blue sky made the suburb feel alive.  The colorful houses and buildings of green, red, blue seemed incongruous with the black and white photos of the camp stuck indelibly in my mind from countless history books.

As the bus made turn after turn, I wondered how far outside this little German suburb filled with gemütlichkeit we would travel.  Surely, the camp must be far removed in distance from the pleasant scenes I just passed.  There must be woods to cross through; perhaps some empty fields?  But no.  Here a park, there an electronics’ store, and the next stop was the ‘KZ’ (Konzentrationslager).

14322704_10207732700778011_9022260041487163341_nI stepped off the bus, back into the sunny warmth.  There are tourists everywhere, slowly walking through a twisting wooded pass. Before entering there was a sign of notices=.  No dogs, no Neo-Nazi clothing….be serious. This is hallowed ground.  Respect the over 30,000 dead of Dachau. Remember that they faced murder, torture, malnutrition, illness.  Forget about all that world you passed through to get here.  Throw your Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte away.

The camp is large.  People walk around in a daze. Student groups mill around teachers.  Religious pilgrims go to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish memorial chapels. I really don’t 14344681_10207732703258073_5736731126016002469_nwant to take pictures, but I can’t not.  ‘Click’…the barbwire fence.  ‘Click’…. the crematorium.  Glance at the ovens. Walk inside the gas chamber. Don’t worry though, it was never used.  Look, over there!  ‘Click’….a meandering path into the shady woods. Escape 14332926_10207732704018092_5335833254930929323_nthe sun. But  there is no escape from this place. The woods hold a plaque informing the visitor that the dilapidated wall to the left was the pistol execution range. The human nightmare scars nature.  The remnants of a ‘blood-ditch’ used to easily clean up the aftermath of the executions makes that clear.  14292522_10207732704658108_8986492502300581023_n

Need to get out of these woods. Back into that sun.  It is beating down. The sky is perfect. I am sure a couple hundred yards away, some teenagers are sitting in that park enjoying the last chance for a summer tan.

As I walk out, I get a distasteful moment of shock.  A young woman wearing heels and sunglasses asks her father or older boyfriend to take a photo of her leaning against the front gate that says ‘Arbeit Macht Frei‘.  She poses.  It looks as though she is concerned about her best side. All I can do is raise an eyebrow. 14358707_10207732701458028_4311876331519568457_n

I walk back to the bus stop.  I need to get to Munich.  The bus is crowded for the ride back to the bahnhof.  I look out the window again, and life is going on as if all is normal.  I wonder how these people out for walks to enjoy the sun can live in a place like this?  How do you say you live in Dachau? ‘I grew up in Dachau’, ‘I go to school in Dachau’, ‘I work in Dachau’.  The identity of these people is connected to a name that means cruelty and death.  The KZ is central to their town.  When it was built in 1933 it was an economic opportunity.  Hundreds of jobs for the local populace; you need KZ guards after-all.  And who is going to feed all those prisoners and guards?  Bakeries, restaurants, markets saw the opportunity.

No longer do prisoners and guards need nourishment. Now it is I and my fellow tourists. Stop for a bite at a local cafe after seeing the barracks. Grab a coffee, and try to erase your memories.  If you need to, reserve a room at a local inn and find some local Bavarian fare.  A little beer never hurts.

The people of Dachau must just get acclimatized.  They are desensitized to the horror that is right next door. Or, maybe they just turn away and ignore it.  If the Nazi period taught us anything, it is that people are really good at doing that.

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When Paul Gaszak and I started this blog 4 years ago, we did so with the goal of avoiding ‘controversial’ and ‘political’ topics. Of course, this has not always been possible.  Completely ignoring the aforementioned two topical realms pretty much closes off most blog possibilities.  Our blog’s discussions of race, education, food, history, science and pop culture can’t help but be political. These topics themselves are politicized in our culture.  Plus, would you really want to read this blog if those topics were never discussed? Our subjective viewpoints make this blog interesting; without them, our little venture would be pretty lifeless. All in all though, I think we have fulfilled our initial promises. We have kept out of many of the ugliest political controversies that seem to rock our world on an ever more common basis.

But, times change and so do politics. As anyone can see, this election year is unique.  I capitalhave been dying to write about it, but we have that whole ‘no controversy’ goal. What to do, what to do?

I’ve decided to start anew….kinda.  With this post, I am creating a new subsection of the Turtle titled ‘Politics 2016’.  ‘Politics 2016’ will be devoted to analyses of the coming November elections, and the state of American politics generally.  Of course, I will be voting and I have an interest in who wins the upcoming election. I fall on one side of the political divide, and I’m sure many readers fall on the other. Hopefully though, the posts that appear on our blog will not identify any Map_of_the_District_of_Columbia,_1835sort of partisan alliance. There will be no hyping of one candidate or the other. There will be no soap-box stances taken on any particular ‘contentious’ issues. This subsection will simply deal with the changing face of American politics, and our larger political culture.

This will be a challenge.  Can this challenge be faced without generating nasty political rancor?  I don’t know. But, I feel it is necessary to try, both for our few readers and for my own mental stability during this crazy election cycle.

So, join us, won’t you?  And, if you have something to add, please do!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

There is a specter haunting the world of academia, and college professors are wailing with fear and frustration. Every few months, the opinion pages of such diverse publications as The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoan this specter.  50 year old college professors fill the pages of these prestigious productions with 6a6151155fbde50cec7b9616661c1448d3374fa7op-eds categorically stating that today’s ‘college students can’t write.’  If you don’t believe me, the weblink attached takes you to 78 million screeds lamenting the lost art of the sentence, the paragraph and the essay. Peruse your pick, and fear for the future.

Personally, I find such concerns to be generally overstated and misplaced. I read thousands of student journals and papers every year, and I have seen very little decline in the standard and quality of student work.(In fact, it has generally been the opposite) Some students are good writers, some are not so good writers. Some are good because they try hard at it, edit furiously and understand how to analyze ideas. For those who are not so good, I find it often comes down to simple laziness.  A proofreading here and there never hurt anyone, but there are some students who can’t take the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t good writers. It just means they have no problem turning in mediocre work. That is their prerogative.

Most concerns about the lost art of writing feel there is more to this issue than just laziness. However, these concerns are often based upon misguided notions. For one thing, there seems to be a belief that college students in the past wrote Dickensian prose and essays that would put Virginia Woolf to shame. This is ludicrous.  The conservative linguist John McWhorter illustrated this in his intriguing 2013 TED talk ‘Txting is Killing Language. JK!!’ About halfway through his 13 minute lecture, McWhorter illustrated that our concern about the lost art of writing is by no means novel.  In 6 quick examples, McWhorter quotes professors and educators from the past 2000 years that sound incredibly like the Cassandras of today. See the queued up clip below:

So it seems that  professors have  always complained about their younger charges’ writing skills. As McWhorter displays, this has much to do with the simple fact that language and linguistics change over time.  But, I think there is something more to it. It’s difficult for humans to believe that what they know now, they have not always known. Ask a professor or teacher about their undergrad writing skills. I guarantee most believe their writing ability at 19 compares favorably to their abilities today. After all, if you are a good writer at 40, you must have been a good writer at 19….right?

Just recently, I was reminded of the much messier reality. When I think back on my undergrad writings it is with rose-tinted glasses.  I mean, I got a bunch of A’s on my college papers after-all!  So, imagine how flummoxed I was the other day when I stumbled upon on old box of 20 year old papers I had written as a junior in college.  Woah!  Pretty ugly!  The work was not terrible by any means, but it was not quite as magical as I recalled. In fact, most of the writing looks pretty similar to what my own students produce today.  To be honest, many of the papers I grade are much better than what I did 20 years ago.  There is no shame in this.  As a 20 year old college student,  I was a different person than my present day self. In college I was just starting to develop many skills in life. Writing was just one of those skills.  The college students that I see today are in the same boat.  They’re 20 years old, and still learning.  It is ridiculously inane to profess an absolutist belief about their abilities at this point in their life.  To say they ‘can’t write’ is at best a misplaced prejudice. At worst it is a sign of outrageous egotism.  Unfortunately, those 78 million Google hits fall under both categories.

My suggestion to the writers and readers of that litany of op-eds?  Before getting too concerned about the end of writing as we know it, look back at your own work from college. You may be in for a surprise.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other day our illustrious Editor-in-Chief of RMU’s student newspaper, Kevin Morales, asked me if I would like to write a quick word regarding why I don’t particularly enjoy superhero movies.  I thought, ‘sure, I’ll play the contrarian’. And evidently, not liking superhero movies is a pretty rare stance these days.  Marvel and DC Comics have taken over Hollywood, and there seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for new tales taken from comic books.

marvel

So, what is my problem?

Before I get into why I generally ignore most of these movies, I feel I must make one thing clear.  I am not necessarily a movie snob. I like a good number of movies that have been critically panned. Every movie I see doesn’t need to be an art-house flick. Also, I am not one who despises or mocks ‘nerd culture’. Sure, I really can do without Lord of the Rings, but I like Harry Potter.  I don’t go for Star Trek, but I love Star Wars.  Avatar? Oh goodness no! The Matrix?  Oh, heck yeah!  So, you see, I don’t reject sci-fi and fantasy out of hand. I like some, I loathe some.

Which brings us back to the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.  I think Kevin assumes I hate all within the genre, but that is not true.  In fact, I love some superhero stories.  Hey, I saw Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night in 1989! I even bought and proudly wore a Batman t-shirt after seeing that seminal film. But, that love doesn’t automatically extend to all Batman stories. I most definitely do not have any desire to see this new Batman v. Superman flick.  I’m avoiding that one like the plague.  There are a couple reasons why.

First, it just looks like a ridiculously asinine concept.  Why are Batman and Superman bat superfighting?  Scratch that; I really don’t care. Any explication of the plot will be absurd. Putting these two characters in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie.  What is the point?  It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on!  Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries?  I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.

But my real problem with most superhero movies, and this includes Zack Snyder’s new Man of Steel vehicles, is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters.  Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show.  Superman? The Hulk? Thor?  An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god?  There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.  They are superhuman, and hence, you get a snowball effect of absurdity. Since humans would be squashed like a bug by these characters, you are forced to provide them with superhuman enemies.  Evil geniuses, other aliens, or, yes, fellow deities. One Norse god fighting another; one alien fighting another.  Why should I care again?

Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!  No films have Batman-the-jokeraccomplished this better than Christopher Nolan’s adaption of Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight’ series.  The Batman/Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s films is emotionally and mentally fragile. He is complex.  Sure, you know Batman will win in the end. But Nolan creates realistically troubling adversity for his hero. He wants you, the viewer, to ask questions. Are you sure Batman’s vigilantism is a positive thing?  Is he obsessed with justice so much that it will destroy him and all he loves? And, what about Batman’s relationship with his arch-nemesis, The Joker?  Perhaps Batman should have killed The Joker?  The Joker, like Batman, is mortal. He is not some demigod or alien.  These films then illustrate the struggle of man v. man, not monster v. monster.  For goodness sakes, by the third installment of the series, Bruce Wayne needs to get a knee brace if he wants to keep fighting villains! Can’t get much more human than that.

In this same vein, Netflix’s Daredevil series is similarly successful.  Of course, Daredevil has some ‘superpowers’; a never quite defined sixth sense that allows him to predict landscape_xlargemovements and foresee actions.  But, the show illustrates the challenges of these ‘powers’. The character must train himself to use this power, and prepare himself physically to fight the evil all around him. He does not have super-strength, super-speed or the ability to shoot lasers out of any orifices. Since he is just a man with some unlikely mental abilities, Daredevil doesn’t automatically win all his fights. Out on the streets of NYC, he usually gives worse than he takes, but he takes quite a bit.   He comes home with scratches, bruises, sprains and breaks. Daredevil could lose. The tension is real.

See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I zoomed through Arthur Koestler’s classic prison memoir, Dialogue With Death.  Koestler was an important 1930s journalist/novelist/intellectual.  As with many of 9780226449616his generation, he was a leftist who flirted with Communism before becoming disenchanted by Stalin, Stalinism and the horrendous crimes perpetuated by the regime during that era.

But, Koestler was more than just a pie-in-the-sky intellectual with his head buried in dusty books.  He got his hands dirty experiencing the unstable political world of 1930s Europe. He witnessed first-hand many of the continent’s revolutions, putsches and civil wars.  Dialogue With Death is his 200 page account of Spanish Civil War battles, his coverage of Republican forces in that war, and his eventual capture by General Francisco Franco’s fascist troops.  After being captured, Koestler was thrown in jail, where he was kept in

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Koestler on his way to the North Pole, 1931

 

solitary confinement for the weeks leading up to his expected execution. In the hands of Franco’s fascists, death was the common punishment for ‘Reds’.  However, after a couple weeks his solitary slowly became less solitary. He began to clandestinely speak to other prisoners outside his cell; eventually, he was even given the opportunity to pick a book out of the prison ‘library’.

His description of getting his hands on his first book in over a month is a wonderfully evocative ode to the joys of reading:

‘I sat down on the bed, lit the cigarette and began to read….I read devoutly and fervently – and very slowly….I learned to read anew, with a long since forgotten concentration on every sentence, every adjective; I felt like someone who has been bed-ridden and who in learning to walk anew is acutely conscious of the play of his muscles. I fancy the Romans must have read in this fashion when books were written by hand on long parchment rolls; devoutly, sentence by sentence, only a few inches of the roll a day, so as to keep the rest for the morrow. When writers were obliged to use parchment rolls they knew how carefully people read them, and had confidence in their readers. Nowadays readers may have confidence in the writer, but writers have no confidence in the reader.’

Koestler was a bibliophile.  But, Koestler’s statement illustrates more than simply his love of books. Koestler’s words illustrate his discovery of the lost art of ‘intensive reading’.  Before his nightmarish prison experience, Koestler was most likely a typical modern reader; he read ‘extensively’. He read whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  But in prison, the world he understood was destroyed.  Books became an impossible luxury. When he was finally able to settle into a book again, Koestler could not help but intensively read. By reading in this way, he made himself a pre-modern.   Literary scholar Geoffrey Turnovsky has pointed out that intensive reading was a skill practiced prior to the 15th-18th century printing boom. At that time, reading

‘was shaped by scarcity rather than abundance, and by the sway of powerful institutions – the Church, universities- that oriented reading in a conservative, stabilizing manner. To read intensively was to focus on a small set of works, rereading each one over and over, not….new information, or surprising amusements, but as part of a ritualistic re-affirmation of faith, understanding, or inclusion in a recognized community.

Though troubling in many ways (ie, not informational or original), intensive reading meant that the reader was supremely focused upon what he/she was studying.Friedrich_Herlin,_Reading_Saint_Peter_(1466)

In comparison, the modern world is marked by extensiveness.  We are more likely to be inundated under an avalanche of reading materials than to be facing a scarcity. Thus, reading as a skill is most valued by speed and efficiency. Just think of the millions spent by those who take speed-reading courses in hopes of plowing through a 500 page novel in 2 hours. In our education system, efficiency is as important as speed. When some of my fellow students in grad school complained about the reading load for one professor’s class, he informed us that we needed to learn what to read, and what to ignore in the books he assigned. A strange request, for a strange culture.

Of course, extensive reading and ubiquitous texts have led to a great many goods. The average human today has knowledge that the pre-printing intensive readers could only dream of.  I mean, who really wants to return to a world of medieval monks chanting and repeating memorized liturgies? Needless to say I am also not romanticizing solitary confinement in a right-wing secret prison with only a handful of books. Personally though, I sometimes think I don’t enjoy what I read enough; I find that I have the habit of thinking about my next book during the reading of my current book.  This is extensive reading absurdity.

In our world of extensive readings, Koestler’s rediscovery of books in a dark fascist prison cell is always good to keep in mind.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

About a month ago, Salon.com ran a video/story that depicted today’s college students in a pretty negative light.  As explained in the short article beneath the video, a group of politically active students went around Texas Tech University asking their classmates simple questions about American history.  ‘Who won the Civil War’, ‘Who did downloadAmerica gain it’s independence from?’, ‘When did we gain our independence?’ and ‘Who is the Vice President of the US?’ were a couple of these softballs.  It wouldn’t be newsworthy if the students answered correctly, so you can guess how they responded. In the hyperbolic language of the Facebook scroll, Salon by-lined the video by warning it’s readers that it would be ‘the most terrifying thing you will see today’.

Now as a history teacher, I am appalled that any American over the age 12, much less college students, would not know these simple facts. But I try to keep an important point in mind: This video is edited to peddle the groups’ agenda.  As Stephen Colbert illustrated in his mocking of a similar series of videos done by Fox News, you really need to take these experiments with a grain of salt. People seem to love laughing at their fellow citizens’ ignorance, so, of course, you only see the most blatantly absurd respondents. But how many of the people asked these questions actually know the answers (what percentage is that?), and hence, don’t get on camera, compared to the ones who did not know the answers (the minority?).  We never will get the true numbers, and so we are left believing Americans are the most laughably ignorant of people.

And it is comedic. The students and Bill O’Reilly have political points to make, but as far as I know, Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show’ was the first to really practice these question/answer maxresdefaultsessions with unsuspecting strangers.  His cringe-worthy experiment of interviewing ignorant Americans has been taken up recently by Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. Interestingly though, the fact that these skits are so popular and funny illustrate an important paradox. The audience find humor in these videos because we understand how absurd it is to not know these facts; in other words, the majority of the audience know the right answer to these questions, and can laugh at those who do not. If the audience was similarly clueless as the interviewees, these videos wouldn’t be entertaining.

So, these videos are no big whoop, right?  Not so fast! As I ponder these interviews, I find something much more disturbing than the obliviousness of a couple poor rubes.  I ask myself: Why is it a sign of historical intelligence to simply restate facts? Why do millions of viewers believe knowing trivia makes you ‘smart’, or well-versed in history?  What is the end-game here?

These videos hint at a much more important issue; the ignorance of the interviewees are not nearly as troubling as the assumptions made by the questioners, and thus, their audience. Jimmy Kimmel and the sunglass-wearing college girl asking questions are only symptomatic of our education culture.  Their concern with rote memorization and trivial fact retention are central to our education system, where test results are all that matter.  These results have come at the expense of understanding larger processes. We ask, ‘what were your test scores’. We rarely ask, ‘do you actually understand the subject that you were tested upon?’

In the study of history, such quantification of ‘knowledge’ is inherently destructive. When history results are graphed by the number of facts you can remember, the meaning of the subject has lost MTE4MDAzNDEwNjEwMzI1MDA2it’s central importance. Think about it: If these kids knew who won the Civil War, would it be all that edifying in regards to their knowledge regarding the event?  If they could identify a picture of James Madison, would that tell us anything in regards to their ability to be good ‘citizens’?  This seems to be the notion behind such recorded questionnaires.  If you can recognize Madison, if you can say who won the Civil War, if you can identify what country America gained independence from, then you are one of the enlightened, and our education system is working. But, this is a ridiculous assumption.  Rote memorization or facial recognition does little to illustrate your understanding of a topic.

I have an anecdote I like to tell my students that illustrates my point.

I took American history in 11th grade.  My history teacher was fine. He was funny, and the-elusive-gettysbur-newh1jpg-bb1c896ba697396dlikable. But, his notions of what proved your knowledge of history was sometimes questionable. For instance, in his course, each student was required to memorize an important speech that shaped American History.  Like many others, I recited the Gettysburg Address.  One day, I sat at his desk and repeated verbatim the words of Lincoln’s revolutionary 2 minute masterpiece.  I did this with no hesitation, and knew every word, and hence, I received an A on the assignment.  Repetition was the only thing necessary for memorization. Memorization was the only thing necessary for an A.

Though I was able to repeat Lincoln’s political poetry back word for word, I actually gained no understanding as to why the words were so important!  My teacher never dealt with WHY Lincoln’s call for a ‘second birth of freedom’ was radical in comparison to the first ‘four score and seven years’ of the American Republic. For that A,  I recited each word robotically. I was asked to be an automaton, and automatons don’t make ‘good citizens’.  Not until college did I realize that history is not only about the who, what and when questions. The litany of facts mean little compared to understanding the larger concerns: HOW and WHY.  Like so many American school kids, I rarely got either.

This is why if I had a student who showed up on one of Jimmy Kimmel’s or Bill O’Reilly’s videos, I wouldn’t really care if they could not tell you when the Civil War ended. But, I would hope beyond hope that he would be able to explain to the interviewer why it was fought.  I am sure such critical explication wouldn’t make for the greatest news blurb for viewers to laughingly cringe at, but it would be much more telling of the interviewee’s knowledge.

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I’ve always been a nostalgic kind of guy. I enjoy romanticizing the previous iterations of my life.  There is irony in this.  I am a history professor that loves to preach to my students that ‘THERE WAS NEVER A GOOD OL’ DAYS’  It is not much different in my own personal history. Yet, I often romanticize time periods of my own past that I realize were not necessarily good times. Evidently I’m a paradox.

Let’s venture into this strange nostalgia.

  1. Though I was undoubtedly nostalgic at an earlier period in my life, I would say my 9390178-largeoddest nostalgia occurred when I was in college.  Inexplicably at 19, I began to view my high school days through rose-tinted glasses. This made absolutely no sense.  When I was living high school, I hated high school.  I deeply romanticized a time that should not have been nostalgic.
  2. After college was graduate school.  Surprise, surprise; at 23 I could not get enough of college memories. Now, this made more sense. College was a great time; much better than high school! Plus, in comparison to undergrad, graduate school was trying. My desire to succeed began to really take over my life. The pressures of grad school just made any blemishes on my college experience pale in comparison.
  3. I got my advanced degree in 2002. I went looking for a job. Then I found a job.  Oh boy.  My student loans needed to be paid back.  Hmmm… maybe grad school, with it’s bookishness, it’s intellectual stimulation, it’s trips to the library and wide-open schedule wasn’t all that bad after-all. At 27, as a working stiff, the thought of once-stressful grad school made me nostalgic.

From 1999 (grad school) to 2008 (career),  Chicago was my home. Though my university was by no means small, the big city was a bit of a culture shock. My initial nostalgia chicago-image-1for college probably  had as much to do with the location of my university as it did with parties, classes and social life.   The entity of Chicago just added to the stress of school and career life.  Chicago was bills. Chicago was truly being independent for the first time.  Chicago was living with my fiance, paying rent on time, dealing with bad landlords and constantly  taking in stray cats.  All the eras of my life seemed simple compared to Chicago.

Then, in 2008, my wife and I left Chicago. We moved to Oak Park, just to the west of the city.  We bought a  house one block over the Chicago city limits.  My two small daughters were born, and then they started day-care (that bill was like a second mortgage!) Oak Park hasn’t been utopia. Taxes, house repairs and play-dates keep us busy and sweating. Still, I would not want to live anywhere else.  I love our community, our neighbors and our friends. Oak Park is much more home than Chicago ever was.

But, just because a place isn’t home doesn’t mean I can’t be nostalgic for it.

A couple  months ago, I turned a Chicago nostalgia corner. I was given the opportunity to teach the ‘Chicago Urban Experience’ course at RMU, and began to really think about Chicago.  What is the identity of Chicago? How does Chicago shape you? I wanted my students to think about these questions. So it only made sense for me to ask the same questions of myself.

One day, I was on the train reading Neal Steinberg’s memoir about his life in Chicago. Then, GR-Ashland2-10it hit me: That feeling of nostalgia. The feeling put a silly smile on my face. All of a sudden, I find myself doing something unexpected: I am looking around and absorbing Chicago. I look at the faces on the train. I look out the window on the El at the neighborhoods going by.  I pay attention to the beautiful architecture of the loop. Heck, I even enjoyed a Chicago hot dog the other day. The people, the culture, the history of Chicago are wonderful!  This class reminded me that when I lived in Chicago, it wasn’t just stressful, it was also incredibly exciting!  The restaurants, the friends, the unknown. These things are now my romantic past, and the thought of them warms the cockles of my heart.

‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Yeah, I guess it really was that.