Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Job satisfaction

I am now in the home stretch of my grading of winter term final examinations. This is the part of academic life teaching professors hate the most, and it is grueling. It is very difficult to be consistent and fair when you're reading similar material time and again, and there is no mistake so gruesome or flabbergasting that somebody will not eventually make it on the paper you are grading.

But this year, grading exams that are made up of short or long essay questions, I am feeling a good deal of job satisfaction. Grading these essays has assured me that the courses I presented succeeded in inspiring some insight and even passion in some of my students. It's hard to say how much they got from me, or how much is original in their thinking, but actually I don't care what the balance is. Students who never had much reason to think about medieval English or ancient history, I guess, have presented me with evidence that they found things in the course material that they actually cared about.

I've done my job.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

What I should have talked about in the last World History lecture

I have concluded that I missed an opportunity to discuss two important issues in the last World History lecture last Monday. I blame it on end-of-term fatigue.

The first of these issues is the coming global famine. I walked into the room wanting to say something about this, which reading the Egyptian news at Al-Ahram had alerted me to. Food prices have gone up for a while and now reasonably stable if not very prosperous countries like Egypt are being hit hard. Since Monday, I've read a lot more. Here is a detailed article from the Wall Street Journal, and here are Phil Paine's remarks at his blog (April 13 post). The Journal blames the rise on commodity prices, which is just code for oil; thus the food crisis is another indirect effect of the Iraq war.

The second issue I did mention briefly, in connection with the international criminal court in the Hague. The United States, extremely imperfectly, has provided leadership in the post-World War II world and various public and especially private initiatives originating there have had a positive effect. We cannot depend upon that anymore. Not only has the USA abandoned the multilateral approach to world peace, the need for which was so evident after both world wars, it has become a great danger to that peace, not in just one place or region, but everywhere its influence reaches. This post at the blog Empire Burlesque -- Too Much of Nothing: Crime Without Punishment, War Without End -- pretty much catches my mood. I'm not sure there will be an attack on Iran, but even without that concluding bit, things are quite bad enough as it is.

One of my more attentive students challenged me privately after the last lecture for my doom and gloom view of recent events. Actually, I felt I was softening the blow. I am afraid we will see just how much damage a modern superpower without a moral compass can do, to itself and everyone else.

(Thanks to Atrios at Eschaton for the EB link; that's why I read you, Atrios.)

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Albanian armed forces -- a knife that turns in the hand?

A recent report on Al Jazeera inspired this post.

In order to join NATO, Albania has been restructuring and decommissioning many of its existing military resources. Some of these are amazingly old, and a year ago inspired the following ridicule-via-YouTube-video (crude soundtrack):



But all those creaky weapons, which might have been close to useless were accompanied by a "crazy" amount of explosives, as the Albanian PM said:

"The problem of ammunition in Albania is one of the gravest, and a continuous threat," Berisha said. "There is a colossal, a crazy amount of them since 1945 until now."


And some of that "crazy" stuff just blew up:



Read more here at Al Jazeera.

Imagine how much stuff countries that are not Albania have lying around!

There's always money for this stuff.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Katyn: the Germans did it, not us

The Economist reports on an ominous sign of official Russian backsliding. After the fall of Soviet Communism, the new Russian government admitted that Stalin's secret police had killed 40,000 Polish officers in Katyn forest, not the Nazis as Stalin claimed.

Now Putin's government is back to peddling the party line.

Read the column in the Economist for how ominous this is.

Curiously, this incident (Katyn) just came up in a World History seminar this afternoon.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

China's economy


Brad de Long directs us to this article by James Fallows at The Atlantic Online, which is subtitled: The Chinese are subsidizing the American way of life. Are we playing them for suckers—or are they playing us?

Those with less time to read may want to look at DeLong's summary.

I'll bet that you'll go on to read the rest.

Students in World History may note a parallel with the material about industrializing Germany and Japan we discussed last week. This comment on DeLong's post caught my eye:
It seems to me that the government is focused on building national greatness, via as fast as possible economic/industrial growth for as long as they can sustain. The lives of the current citizens are valued only as fuel for the engine of growth. They know this cannot be a permanent arrangement, but the longer they can keep it up the higher up the slope they see China climbing. The transistion from forced hypergrowth to whatever comes afterwards probably won't be smooth, but their strategy is to delay it for as long as feasible in order to climb higher up the slope before that happens.
Image: A coking factory in China, thanks to the Telegraph (UK).

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

HIST 1505, assignment for the second paper


Students in History of the Modern World, HIST 1505, who are anxious to get started on the second essay, here is the list of books and the assignment.

Image: Steph Swainton, who has recently written a novel called The Modern World, which seems to be about the War against the Insects.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Common questions about the term tests

I'm excerpting a letter I got from a student in HIST 2055, Ancient Civilizations, and answering the writer's questions here for others in this course and the other two:

First of all, I was wondering if all of the terms and essays will be on the exam, or if you are selecting a few from the given list to actually be on the exam.

I will be choosing a number of terms and essay topic from those I put on the study sheet.

Also, I have started preparing the essays, and I was wondering if you wanted the essay to address the questions which were at the top of the lecture notes and extra readings or is there another format you would like us to follow.

In HIST 2055 and 3425 the essay questions are based on source material we looked at in class, and in preparation for class discussion I suggested some questions to think about. It wouldn't hurt to look at those questions again, but you aren't restricted to reacting to them only. After a term of lectures and discussion, you may have a good idea of your own to write about.

And last, but not least, are the actual documents going to be on the exam, or just the titles and we create our essay from what we know!
The documentary material that was on the study sheet will also be on the exam paper.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chocolate began as beer

This is for my students in Modern World History, or anyone else who has contemplated the role of mood-altering substances in world history.

The title comes from a Reuters story, but I'll refer you to the wonderful presentation on the blog Driftglass.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sweet Nexus

World History students sweating over their papers on the global effects of the early modern sugar trade might want to read this article in the LA Times on the addictive nature of sweetners, and not just sugar. Before eating another donut.

For the record, I love donuts.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

An op-ed to examine, and the issue of stupidity

Students in my world history class were asking for help with assignment #1 today, and one piece of advice I gave was that they might learn a lesson in focus by looking at an opinion piece on the editorial page of a major newspaper. Op-eds usually are restricted to 800 words, and our first assignment's meant to have no more than 750. You can't say much in that length. I thought looking at a pro at work might be helpful. Or more than one.

Here's a possibility. Thomas Friedman, a well-known columnist for the New York Times wrote today that 9/11 has made America stupid, isolated and increasingly, backward. A key passage reads:

Look at our infrastructure. It’s not just the bridge that fell in my hometown, Minneapolis. Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. I still can’t get uninterrupted cellphone service between my home in Bethesda and my office in D.C. But I recently bought a pocket cellphone at the Beijing airport and immediately called my wife in Bethesda — crystal clear.

I just attended the China clean car conference, where Chinese automakers were boasting that their 2008 cars will meet “Euro 4” — European Union — emissions standards. We used to be the gold standard. We aren’t anymore. Last July, Microsoft, fed up with American restrictions on importing brain talent, opened its newest software development center in Vancouver. That’s in Canada, folks. If Disney World can remain an open, welcoming place, with increased but invisible security, why can’t America?

We can’t afford to keep being this stupid! We have got to get our groove back. We need a president who will unite us around a common purpose, not a common enemy.
Friedman's not making a rigorous argument (see below) but he packs a lot of supporting material for his thesis into about 790 words.

For what it's worth, I disagree that stupidity is the only problem afflicting the USA. See the Washington Post column by Jim Rokakis, where he explains how predatory lenders are wrecking American towns, and how they have got away with it, and a piece on the growing number of American security guards while the USA loses productive jobs. (Cited from the Group News Blog because I couldn't find the original article at Too Much.)

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

The New Mamlukes?


The American blog Progressive Historians compares the prominent but secretive mercenary company Blackwater, whose activities in Iraq have been recently in the news, to the Mamlukes of old. Mamluke and Mamluke-like groups have come up in both my World History class and Ancient Civilizations. Is it a reasonable comparison? How about the "free companies" of the Hundred Years War as an analog?

Progressive Historians is notable for providing detailed historical arguments more often than most political blogs. One would hope that would be the case.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Welcome students!

I just met some of you yesterday, and I'll see the rest of you on Monday and Tuesday, so I guess it is time to say a few words about this blog.

Muhlberger's Early History was created as an informal addition to my courses at Nipissing University, though in the past year and a half it's grown to be a bit more than that (like most journals do). I try, however, to keep my students foremost in my thoughts as I add to it. Here's what you can expect to find here:

1. Those pesky but sometimes useful and interesting announcements that are constantly coming my way: "Please announce this to your classes." That's not a very efficient way to get the information across. It's better to do this:

I am writing to invite you to attend and participate in the 2nd Annual Welcome Pow Wow scheduled for Friday, September 14, 2007 from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. It will be held outside the main cafeteria next to the pond (rain out location: Robert J. Surtees Athletic Centre).

The Aboriginal Learning Unit (ALU) of Canadore College and Aboriginal Services and Programs of Nipissing University are hosting this event to welcome students back to campus. As well, it is an opportunity for the campus community to participate in a social activity rooted in First Nation traditions.

Students, faculty and staff are invited to attend and participate in an event with traditional drumming, singing, dancing and food. Traditional drummers, singers and dancers (some of whom are our students) will be participating and you, the campus community are invited to join us.
2. Another kind of material is information directly related to the course material that occurrs to me during lecture or is just too long or tangential to fit into the scheduled class time. A great deal of it is in the news; you may be surprised how often history hits the various media outlets. Also there are plenty of well-informed people contributing short, medium and long pieces about subjects of historical interest.

Most of this material will be about "early history" since my specialty is medieval history and most of my teaching concerns the pre-railroad era (my personal definition of early, at least in a teaching context); however, since I sometimes teach right up the present (Islamic Civilization, this year's History of the Modern World), and have an interest in the world-wide history of democracy, recent events will creep in.

3. Finally, there will be more than a few entries that concern philosophical, historical, and political issues, either my thoughts or those of others on the web that I find interesting (not just those I agree with). I try to limit this material to avoid producing an unfocused personal blog, but on the other hand what use is a blog if it doesn't contribute occasionally to the Great Conversation?

Enough for now: To show you how this blog can be useful to you, I'm linking from here to the on-line lectures for HIST 2055 and HIST 3425 , so those of you who come here will see these resources just a little before everyone else.

Ancient History Lectures (still keyed to dates in 2000-1, I'm afraid; will fix.)

Medieval England Lectures (still says HIST 2425, a former course number for it; keyed to 2004-5.)

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Discovering the Global Past, Vol. 2, 3rd edition

On the off chance that some of the students in the upcoming Modern World History course, HIST 1505, may already be reading this, and for other teachers of world history who might be interested, I thought I'd say a few words about the document reader we will be using in that class: Merry Wiesner et al. (= and others), Discovering the Global Past, Vol. II: Since 1400, 3rd edition.

Mark Crane, HIST 1505's seminar leader, located this volume a couple of years ago and we are in his debt for finding it. It is a reader in which original documents are organized not only by theme ("Constitutional Responses to European Expansion") but in a clearly comparative way ("Constitutional Responses" compares the Gold Coast (Ghana) to Hawaii). As I am not only lecturing in HIST 1505, but leading one of the seminars, I looked much more closely at this book
than I had before, and it made fascinating reading when taken all together.

Here's what I liked:

  • Fabulous selection of themes and individual sources.
  • Very good editorial discussion of themes and documents (if not quite as fabulous as the selection).
  • Taught me a number of things I did not know.
  • Made me look forward to discussing them with students.
Will students like this book and learn from it? Who knows? Students, years, and classes are all different. But at least I won't be working with second-rate material.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Guan Yu and the Canadian undergraduate

Students in HIST 1505 already know this, but I thought others would be interested.

On Thursday I was talking about the difference between offically sponsored religious cults and local cults in Ming China. Our textbook referred to the example of Guan Yu, a legendary warrior and Buddhist saint who was honored in both ways, officially and unofficially, with the difference being that even the imperial officials thought the unofficial cult was more worthy of support. I threw in the fact, which I'd learned by exploiting my subtle research skills (Google!) that Guan Yu went on to be the hero of a famous romance novel, then operas, and in recent times, video games.

And sure enough, several students had played some of those games and knew old Guan Yu well.

Good thing we started this World History survey a few years back, or we'd be seriously behind our students...

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