Tag Archives: humanities

  • One in a Thousand: One Hundred Years Later

    One hundred years ago, Eddie McKay, the WWI flying ace featured in One in a Thousand, was shot down and killed. To commemorate his life and death, and the publication this year of Eddie's story in an innovative new microhistory, author Graham Broad discusses how he was compelled to research, write, and publish Eddie's story. To learn more about Eddie McKay, you can of course get your hands on a copy of One in a Thousand, but we also urge you to check out Eddie's account on Twitter: @AEMcKayRFC

    I don’t believe in such things, but if I did, I’d say that Eddie McKay was pursuing me.

    About fifteen years ago, when I was a TA in the Canadian history survey at Western, I was asked to give a guest lecture about Canada in the First World War. It was my first lecture and I was quite unsure of myself, but I knew that the lecture would be more meaningful for the students if I told them about someone from their own university who had been killed in the war. The campus had no First World War cenotaph—it’s a long story—but I found Eddie's name in an old book about Western’s history. I looked into his story briefly. He was a rugby player who became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Perfect.

    I spent a few hours in the university archives looking for a picture of him to no avail. I left, stretching and yawning, rubbing my eyes, and paused to glance for a moment at a nearby display case. And there was an old and yellowed photo of Eddie McKay, wearing his rugby team uniform, looking straight back at me from the pages of a scrapbook about Western’s sports history. I alerted the archivist. “That’s weird,” she said. “I flipped to that page at random this morning.”

    Odd things like that happened again, over a decade later, when I decided to write a book about Eddie, like the time I took my laptop to the local market for a change of scenery. Sipping coffee and writing, I looked down for a moment at the top of the table. Somebody had etched “Eddie” in it. So that was weird, too.

    Again, I don’t believe in that stuff, but Eddie McKay does haunt me in a way. I can’t really claim to know him. Even if he had survived the war, it’s improbable that I ever could have: he would have turned seventy-eight the year I was born. Would I have liked him, or would he have liked me? He was athletic and a soldier. I am bookish, uninterested in sports, and unmilitary. And it would be incredible if he did not share many of the commonplace sentiments of his own age that rightly find no place in our own. Yet something about him compelled and still compels me inexorably. I’d mention him once a year when I guest lectured, and later in my classes when I started to teach. Then in 2007, I persuaded my senior seminar to do a little class project about him. Together, we gathered material about his life, at least the stuff we could get locally, and placed a commemorative marker for him on campus. I pass it often. My wife, who works at the university, can see it from her office window.

    In 2013, I hashed out an idea with Natalie Fingerhut, the Higher Education History Editor at University of Toronto Press. A biography, of sorts, of Eddie McKay. Could it be done? I dunno, I said. I’m not sure if there’s enough material. What the students and I had gathered in 2007 provided no more than a sketch. Even better, she proposed. It would really be two biographies: the story of Eddie McKay and the story of how I wrote that story—or failed to write it. A pedagogical microhistory.

    So, I committed biography, as they say. Sort of. I was able to locate only about six documents relating specifically to Eddie’s life prior to his twentieth year, for example, so the “biography” was pretty much confined to the last three years of his life when he was a student and soldier. Moreover, the experience of thinking my way through things I had taken for granted, such as how I went about doing history, why I believed the things I discovered about the past were probably true, laid me bare. Oh, back in the day I had taken the obligatory theory and methods courses, and I had wandered the thickets of “theory” over many hours of beer and argument with classmates who were convinced that there was nothing in this world that we could be convinced about. But I had always believed that, for all the interventions of the post-modernists, the core methodology of the historical profession hasn’t changed much over the years. We write about more things and often take a broader perspective, but fundamentally it seems to me that most historians do what historians have been doing for a very long time: they gather evidence to tell stories and make arguments about the past.

    My book, One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps, is the story of a promising young man who was killed in a terrible war. It is also the story about how I struggled to learn what I did about him, how I came to certain conclusions—however tentative—about him, and how I dealt with gaps in the record and the mysteries I couldn’t resolve. Where is he buried? Who was the mystery woman who inquired after him when he failed to return from his final patrol? What was in the envelope, addressed to him, that was never sent by the President of UWO in 1917? The book serves as an entry point, then, for students wanting to learn more about historical theory and method. It’s possible to skip the methodological discussions and read the book as biography alone, but it’s my hope that readers who come for the history will stay for the historiography.

    Eddie McKay was killed in action the day after his 25th birthday, 28 December 1917. For the past two years, I have been tweeting significant events in his life from @AEMcKayRFC. You can follow him there. In a future blog post, I’ll ruminate some about how I learned to stop worrying and love the tweet.

    Graham Broad is Associate Professor of History at King's University College at Western University and the author of A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945 (2013).

  • A Short History of the Ancient World, Part One: The Growth and Collapse of Civilizations

    To mark the publication of our new and beautifully illustrated textbook, A Short History of the Ancient World, we will be featuring two back-to-back posts by the authors. Today, Nicholas K. Rauh provides background on his own archaeological research and how it informs the narrative of the book—particularly the book's emphasis on how civilizations rise and fall, and what we can learn from this today.

    For the past 22 years, I have conducted archaeological survey on the south coast of Turkey. Survey is a uniquely non-intrusive field activity that locates and records the remains of past human activity as it survives on the existing landscape. Typically, these remains lay hidden by dense vegetation in remote rural areas. Ruined buildings, scraps of wall, and debris fields strewn with bits of pottery, glass, roof tile, and bone help to confirm the existence of what was formerly an isolated farmstead, a village, or perhaps a small city. An underlying principle of survey archaeology assumes that the current landscape represents a palimpsest of past disturbances, the result of various energies—natural, animal, and human—that worked to transform the landscape over thousands of years. Ruined temples in remote canyons, large fortification walls hidden today by dense forests, and random sherd scatters in the middle of cultivated fields all need to be assessed within the context of a continually changing landscape. Only by analyzing things in context can we hope to determine their appearance, not to mention their purpose in earlier times.

    During the past decade, I have investigated more than a dozen ruined settlements in the remote highlands of south coastal Turkey. The extant remains of cemeteries, houses, baths, temples, inscribed dedications, and fortification walls indicate that Roman-era settlements in these highlands once sustained sizable populations. Today these same highlands support scattered villages of perhaps a few dozen inhabitants. In other words, during Roman times the rural landscape of south coastal Turkey was populated far more densely than it is today. Admittedly, modern urban centers such as Antalya and Alanya on the Turkish coast compensate for this disparity by accommodating far larger populations than anything conceivable in ancient times. Nonetheless, the results of my archaeological survey indicate that Roman-era settlement carpeted the rural landscape far more densely than today, with the inhabitants seemingly leaving no viable resource unexploited. This reminds us that in the space-time continuum, human settlements grew in size and complexity and forested terrain was cleared and converted into well-manicured landscapes. Eventually, these same settlements fell abandoned, and the landscape gradually reverted to some semblance of its natural state. Investigating the remains of 2000-year-old habitats in these remote rural hillsides helps to instill a profound sense of history in what I do.

    Nick Rauh investigating the remains of an Iron Age fortification wall on Dana Island.

    The fact that these abandoned country sides harbor vestiges of past civilizations holds important lessons for our current era of unprecedented population growth. Contemporary pursuit of economic expansion with its inordinate dependence on energy and natural resources calls to mind the inability of past civilizations to transcend unforeseen barriers or thresholds to growth. This theme is precisely what my book with Heidi Kraus, A Short History of the Ancient World, attempts to address. At several points during the ancient experience, societal, and most probably ecological disturbances, interrupted growth by setting in motion sudden epochs of societal collapse and reorganization. Recurring patterns characterized by long fore loops of societal expansion and conservation followed by sudden back loops of release and reorganization appear to have transpired during the Bronze Age and again at the end of the Roman era. These patterns suggest that from a material standpoint societal trajectories of expansion and collapse are largely unavoidable. During antiquity the duration of growth fore loops was sometimes prolonged through active lines of communication between neighboring civilizations (something referred to as interconnectivity). While interconnectivity conceivably extended growth and prosperity in participating societies, it ultimately synchronized their trajectories and rendered the inevitable back loop of collapse and reorganization all the more chaotic. While interesting in and of itself, this recurring pattern of expansion and collapse among macroregionally connected civilizations furnishes a useful bell weather for contemporary global concerns.

    A Roman-era rock-cut tomb at Direvli.

    In A Short History of the Ancient World, Heidi Kraus and I lean heavily on evidence for the inherent systems and structures used to forge ancient civilizations. We enumerate the cultural attributes of each ancient civilization according to an established set of criteria. We carefully describe the resource potential of each society’s ecological niche. We explore the ideological mainsprings employed by ancient hierarchies to justify their religious and political ascendancy. We evaluate the success with which these hierarchies utilized the fine arts to express their ascendant ideologies. Most importantly, we calibrate the growth fore loop of emergent civilizations by employing constructs of state formation, world systems, and resilience theory. As coeval civilizations achieved the conservation phase of growth fore loops, we explore the admittedly limited evidence for interconnectivity on a macroregional scale. We argue that, while initially conducive to prolonging growth, ancient globalization inevitably synchronized the back loops of interconnected civilizations during the collapse phase of the cycle. Last, we take care to observe how the influx of new peoples, cultural influences, and technologies insured that the processes of renewal would occur under modified conditions of scale and complexity.

    Much of what is stated in A Short History of the Ancient World is theoretical and open to debate. We readily concede that our interpretation of the ancient experience represents one of several ways of looking at the past. Our purpose in doing so has been to recount the history of theancient world in a manner that is as meaningful as it is relevant, as approachable as it is compelling.

    Nicholas K. Rauh is Professor of Classics at Purdue University and an award-winning teacher. He is the author of The Sacred Bonds of Commerce: Religion, Economy, and Trade Society at Hellenistic Roman Delos (1993) and Merchants, Sailors, and Pirates in the Roman World (2003).

  • The Power of History to Galvanize and Energize

    In honour of University Press Week (November 6-11), our history editor, Natalie Fingerhut, reflects on how she sees scholarship making a difference in her everyday world, both on and off the page, and in her day-to-day job as an editor of higher education materials for students. This year's theme for UP Week is #LookItUP: Knowledge Matters

    In my day job, I spend a lot of quality time in the fifth and fifteenth centuries, acquiring books that teach students about the Middle Ages. After hours, my personal reading is focused on the twentieth century and specifically on the territory that Yale historian Timothy Snyder refers to as the “Bloodlands”: the area of Europe that ping-ponged between Hitler and Stalin and where millions of men, women, and children, including Jews, Poles, and Russians, were massacred by bullets, starvation, disease, and gas. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Snyder references the work of Jewish journalist and fiction writer Vasily Grossman, who in 1944 visited the remains of one of the death camps located in the Bloodlands, Treblinka, and wrote a searing account entitled “The Hell of Treblinka.” In a particularly graphic passage, Grossman describes final moments in the gas chambers:

    The door of the concrete chamber slammed shut […] Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now… Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another; they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, “Patience now—this is the end.” Someone shouts out some terrible curse. A holy curse—surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child’s dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, “Why am I being suffocated? Why can’t I love and have children?” Heads spin. Throats choke. What are the pictures now passing before people’s glassy dying eyes? Pictures of childhood? Of the happy days of peace? Of the last terrible journey? Of the mocking face of the SS man in that first square by the station: “Ah, so that’s why he was laughing…” Consciousness dims. It is the moment of the last agony… No, what happened in that chamber cannot be imagined. The dead bodies stand there, gradually turning cold.

    Around the same time I first read this essay, private sponsorship of Syrian refugees began in earnest in Toronto. Under the influence of Grossman and the horrors he had witnessed, I volunteered to do communications work for my synagogue’s refugee efforts and I am pleased to report that we managed to bring in a set of grandparents, parents, and a little boy. Five people saved from another inferno.

    This is the power of history to galvanize and energize. And while I realize that there are educators who stamp “Trigger Warning” on material such as Grossman, doing so suppresses the energy that causes those readers impacted by such horror to act.

    As a history editor at a university press, I am constantly privileged to speak with professors who are galvanized and energized to bring out the best instincts in their students—more so now than when I started a dozen years ago. I have medievalists who are trying to tell another and more complicated story of pre-modern relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims: a story that looks at cooperation rather than just conflict. They hope, I think, that if their students see that interfaith relations are more complex, that understanding will trickle into their consciousness when they look at the Middle East today and maybe, just maybe, they will spend their careers trying to repair that troubled region.

    I have authors who spend their time curating powerful primary sources related to trials in order to teach students about justice and agency and gender and superstition. They believe that the trial of a sixteenth-century literate woman who was put to death for being a witch has lessons to teach budding lawyers, judges, and leaders of women’s groups.

    In the last year, I have received brilliant proposals for projects that teach Canadian undergraduates our sordid history of Indigenous relations by emphasizing the invaluable skill of “reading against the grain.” What isn’t being said? By asking questions to reveal silences, lies, and contradictions, students learn to empathize with the silenced and hopefully take that empathy into their futures as activists.

    There has been a dramatic change in the proposals I have received in the last two years especially. I used to receive proposals for books that covered dates and personalities and events. Now, the proposals contain sections such as “Historical Skills for Students.” This is not a coincidence. We seem to be moving forward into the backwardness of the century we have just left. My authors feel compelled to do their part to put on the brakes. To ask their students to read and read carefully. To think carefully. To remember that the past is a teacher, and then ideally, to have this generation armed with the skills of the historian to act positively on the future’s behalf.

    Natalie Fingerhut
    History Editor, Higher Education

    *  *  *

    This post is part of the University Press Week Blog Tour. Please visit our colleagues' blogs:

    WLU Press: A post from Indigenous scholar and fiction writer Daniel Heath Justice on the importance of Indigenous literatures and scholarship.

    Temple University Press: A post about books and authors that focus on racism and whiteness.

    University Press of Colorado: A feature on the press's Post-Truth-focused titles.

    Princeton University Press: Al Bertrand on the importance of non-partisan peer reviewed social science in today's climate.

    Cambridge University Press: A post about Marie Curie and her struggle for recognition within a French scientific community dominated by male scientists.

  • An Introduction to the Crusades

    To start off the fall semester, UTP is proud to post the following words from author S.J. Allen on the importance of understanding, teaching, and debating the Crusades. Her most recent book, An Introduction to the Crusades, published earlier this year, provides an excellent overview of a very complex time period. We hope that the book, as part of our new Companions to Medieval Studies series, will help to clear up some modern misconceptions of the Middle Ages.

    The Crusades have drifted in and out of my life from my first secondary school research paper (thankfully now lost in the mists of time) to this year’s publication of An Introduction to the Crusades. My fascination for these events lies in that fact that they embrace a myriad of medieval cultures and regions. It is also a topic that continues to be revived and redefined in the succeeding centuries, including our own.

    Crusade studies are today one of the most popular of undergraduate history courses, and reasons for this are not difficult to understand given current East/West tensions. The subject is, however, a controversial one, for as much as we seek to understand the interactions of eastern and western societies within the medieval crusading context, modern events and circumstances have enabled some to commandeer and manipulate the period to serve modern ends. This “management” of history, no matter its origin, is nothing new, but as both Emilie Amt and I argued in our related sourcebook: “…the Crusades, more than any other medieval event, have become inextricably linked to present-day political and religious debates.” This is perhaps why I believe their study to be important, not just for future medievalists, but for students of all backgrounds and all academic interests. With this in mind, the book’s final chapter, “The Crusades and Modern Memory,” aims to offer students a clear and relevant example of how historical events—their interpretation, remembrance, and use—can change over time, influencing, for good or ill, not only our view of the past, but also how we perceive and interact as contemporary societies. I am certain it is a topic that will stimulate discussion and debate, no matter what the make-up of the undergraduate classroom. For myself, I would share Umej Bhatia’s hope that:

    "…a better understanding of the [Crusade] period may offer the scaffolding for an informed dialogue between the west and the Muslim world. As the poster conflict of civilizational clash, the history of the Crusades is an ideal subject for the foregrounding of such dialogue." (quoted in An Introduction to the Crusades)

    I would also anticipate that students would come away from the book with a deeper understanding of the nature of the crusading period, that is, to see this not simply as a time of violent conflict, but also one of peaceful coexistence, exchange, and cooperation—a period where truce, treaty, and negotiation played as much a role in the lives of these peoples as armed confrontation.

    I would hope that An Introduction to the Crusades proves a useful teaching tool, enabling instructors to deliver engaging exercises and stimulating class discussions, as well as to facilitate further student research. As an interactive text, it is designed to develop a student’s ability to adopt a critical approach. As noted above, it can be read as a stand-alone work, although its use with The Crusades: A Reader should lead to a more developed understanding of the subject and its related issues.

    Considering the book as a whole (and with instructors in mind), An Introduction to the Crusades is the second publication in UTP’s Companions to Medieval Studies, a collection of introductory histories that can be used in conjunction with the Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures series. The idea behind the Companions series is to offer both an introductory history as well as texts and topics that engage and encourage students to interact directly with the subject’s primary sources and current academic debates. In my own teaching, I’ve always valued that moment when a student progresses from a descriptive to an analytical approach. The Companions series aims to facilitate this development.

    I was fortunate to have, as an exemplary model, UTP’s first volume in this series, The Vikings and Their Age (2013). I also greatly benefited from the advice and guidance of the series editor, Paul Dutton, history editor Natalie Fingerhut, and the knowledgeable, professional, yet incredibly humane team at UTP.

    S.J. Allen is Associate Lecturer in Arts and Humanities at The Open University, UK.

  • Who Is the Historian?

    In advance of the publication of Who Is the Historian?—which will officially become available during the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, January 7-10—the author, Nigel A. Raab, offers some reflections on the process of writing the book, the impetus behind it, and his hopes for the book’s future as well as the future of the discipline of history.

    UTP29 Who's the Historian Mech R1.inddIn this book, I wanted to add a third dimension to the historian. Normally, we experience the historian as an author’s name on the cover of a historical work. We read this historical work and analyze the interpretation but we never get a sense for who the historian is or how they put together that work. Thus Who Is the Historian? reveals the gamut of experiences that make the study of history such an exciting and valuable profession. We have “The Making of…” DVDs, so why shouldn’t we get a back stage pass to the work of the historian? All you have to do is take a quick peek at the archives and libraries that historians use to understand they travel around the world for inspiration. I have always loved visiting new cities, taking trains into the Arctic or onto the Russia-Chinese border to hunt out documents or explore new intellectual terrain. Historians can venture way off the beaten path for intellectual stimulation. These possibilities have to be made clear to younger generations so they see that research is more than spending time in a library. In diversifying the ways in which we think of the historian, the profession itself becomes more intriguing to curious young minds.

    I also wanted to overcome the misconception that only individuals working in history departments are historians. I have long thought that the term historian is conceived too narrowly. As part of my research for the book, I met with archivists, librarians, and curators to talk with them about their place in this larger web. I learned so much from these conversations. They all have links with the historical profession even if they might not have the official title of historian. It was great to be able to write a book about a community of researchers from different walks of life rather than just focus on a few classic historical masterpieces.

    I thought it was time to open up about these possibilities because history and the humanities come under the gun far too often. To my mind, there is nothing more intriguing and endlessly complex as the human experience, but in a world where the emphasis is placed on science, we continually have to remind ourselves of the role history and the humanities play. Historians don’t have a Nobel Prize to advertise their successes so the book promotes the ability of the historian to have an influence in a highly technical world. The studies of historians have had a profound affect on gender equality, gay rights, racial issues, economic inequalities, and so many other issues they rarely get credit for. It might be high time to institute a Nobel Prize for historical research. Looking beyond tired references to critical thinking, I present the study of history as a crucial vehicle to expose perspectives that intersect with the past, present, and future.

    At the same time, the book is designed to introduce readers to methodological issues in an accessible way. I didn’t want to grind out theoretical and abstract issues, which in this context would only alienate readers. Instead, it hints at all sorts of interpretive and practical problems, such as coping with the new digital research universe, to demonstrate the conundrums historians face. With the onslaught of visual evidence in today’s world, I wanted to explore the challenges this poses. I chose creative videos such as Laurie Hill’s Photograph of Jesus, because it combines humour and curiosity with critical archival dilemmas. The book is not written to solve these problems item by item, since this could slow the pace of an energetic narrative. Yet it suggests numerous avenues for further exploration.

    This book draws from my experiences as well as those of friends and colleagues in diverse research locations. It is interesting for me to look back at the finished book to see which experiences feature most prominently. The armed guards at the archives in Russia and the subterranean libraries of France have a role to play. But so do the hidden cultural gems of Los Angeles, my adopted home and a city not often associated with intellectual pursuits. The reader will see Los Angeles as a multi-faceted city with more than the glitz and glamour of Hollywood; it has a dynamic web of cultural resources that highlight how diverse historical inquiry can be. If a reader finds him or herself in Los Angeles, they might even decide to stop in at the Tattle Tale Lounge for refreshment and check whether my reference to the locale jibes with reality!

    The question in the title is but one of many questions in the book. I just hope readers follow my journey and use these questions to help them pursue their own adventures. Years down the road, I would be happy to hear where those quests took them.

    Nigel A. Raab is Associate Professor of History at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.

5 Item(s)