Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Wait, Didn't You Have One of These Last Year?

So today I became the parent of a fourteen-year-old.

I am no more sure of how this happened now than I was last year at this time, or indeed any of the previous years where I have made pretty much this exact observation every time.  What can I say?  It always surprises me.  The basic physical and biological facts remain the same – not much has changed that way over the millennia, no matter how much every generation feels it invents that stuff anew – but the general sense of how I got from Point A (defined variously as “a single man,” “a married man with no children,” and/or “the parent of a toddler”) to Point B (defined as “having a child nearly old enough to drive in this state”) remains something of a mystery to me.

You would think, as a professional historian, I would be better at keeping track of such things – or at least learning from the past, since this seems to happen every year – but you’d be wrong.

One of the side-effects of having a birthday during Christmas break is that scheduling a birthday party is always a bit of a chore – especially when that birthday falls on a holiday as well.  Friends are out of town.  Other plans have been made.  Things like that.  New Year’s Eve is a good night to stay home anyway, really.  It’s Amateur Night out there on the highways, the bottom fell out of the thermometer a few days ago and hasn't been seen since, and it will be a fine evening to batten down the hatches and turn inward.  There will be a small family sort of thing at home tonight, with another more friend-inclusive event sometime later, when there is time for it. 

So tonight will be quiet.  There will be a dinner of Tabitha’s choosing.  She loves to bake, so she will make her own cake (a much less ambitious project than the buche de noel from last year, which was marvelous but took all day).  We will hang out, perhaps play a few games, and watch the New Year festivities on television when the time comes.  We’ll watch the ball drop in New York, just down the road from the cousins we saw last week.  In fact, we’ll probably watch it twice – once live, and then once more when it’s actually midnight here in Wisconsin an hour later.  We’re a bit behind the times here.

There will be cards and, depending on delivery schedules, perhaps presents as well.  We might even sing, depending on how excruciatingly embarrassing that turns out to be.

It is a strange thing to watch your children grow up, to see them mature into interesting and capable people.  But that’s how it is supposed to work, really.  That’s what parenting is all about, getting your children to the point where they can go out into the world in all its messy and sharp-edged glory.  It means that things are going well.

And so they are.

Happy birthday, Tabitha.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Back Home

If there actually is such a thing as purgatory, it probably looks a great deal like the Hampton Inn in Maumee, Ohio.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Hampton Inn in Maumee, Ohio, is a fine hotel.  It is clean and well maintained.  It has a heated indoor pool, a polite and friendly staff, and a decent hot breakfast as far as hotel breakfasts go.  There is a Five Guys just across the street now, for those so inclined.  We’ve stayed there a number of times on our trips back east, and we’ll likely stay there again.  It is, in fact, a hotel I would recommend to whoever happens to be in the Maumee vicinity and in need of hotel services.  Book with confidence, gentle reader.

But the thing about the place – about all such places – is that it is neither here nor there.  It is betwixt and between, a waystation somewhere on the route from where you were to where you are headed.  It is, in short, a placeholder.  It fills the gap on the map and provides a resting spot while you sort out your other business. 

Also, it’s reasonably quiet, so if you have some sins you’d like to contemplate you can do that in a blandly comfortable environment that won’t distract you from whatever conclusions you should be drawing, such as how you really wish you had the chance to go back and commit most of them all over again except that youth is wasted on the young and now all you want to do is sleep. 

I’m not sure what the theologians would say, but really – can you imagine a better setting for that sort of thing?  Someone should write a monograph on this, is all I’m saying.

We were there last night.

We had spent the previous week back in the Philadelphia area, hanging out with family and generally celebrating the various holidays that needed to be celebrated – Christmas, Christmas Eve (a far bigger holiday in my family), a couple of birthdays.  It was a grand time, and there will be a post or two about the week coming soon.

Now we are home, back in Our Little Town, where tonight’s low will dip into Brass Monkey Weather.  But the driveway is cleared of snow, the bags are in the house, the cats and rabbits are fed, and we have no plans for tonight beyond warm beverages, good books, and perhaps a football game or two, so we will remain cozy and snug in our own home.

It’s good to see family and friends.  It’s good to come home.

In between?

Well, it’s a fine hotel.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I Got Yer Merry Little Christmas Right Here

Every year around this time I am inundated by Christmas carols.

On the one hand, this is not such a bad thing, all things considered.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, and some of the songs are kind of catchy when you listen to them.  Every once in a while some of my favorites get some air time as well, though not as often as I would hope.  But you have to be glad for those moments when they do.

On the other hand, it does have its odd moments.

It has been years since I have been able to take “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” seriously, for example, and for this I blame Andrei Codrescu.

For those of you who did not listen to National Public Radio in the 90s, well, you missed out.  Codrescu was one of their regular contributors, someone who would come on just before the top of the hour and fill the last three or four minutes before the day’s headlines.  He had a deep gravelly voice, heavily accented by his native Romanian, and an even deeper sense of the absurd that was likely even more heavily accented by his native Romanian.

“There are some strange jobs in this world,” he said one time.  “My friend Larry once had a job nailing Jesus to the cross.  Literally.  The crosses came from Bolivia and the Jesuses came from Brazil.  The place he worked for, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, put them together and sold them in religious shops.  He didn't feel too good about it.  But a job's a job.”

I always looked forward to his stories.

One afternoon, shortly before Christmas and not long after Kim and I were married, I was sitting in our apartment not getting any work done – a surprisingly common state of affairs, really, and one of the reasons my dissertation took so long to write – when he came on the radio with a piece about how the gates of Hell had been located here on earth, according to one or another supermarket tabloid.  He was particularly tickled about the fact that said gates were located in Brazil, a tropical country known in the US at that time mostly for Carnival and soccer, which were fun and therefore no doubt just the kinds of activities that would erupt near such gates.  He rambled on about that for a while, parsing out the ramifications of Hell on earth being easily accessible these days and what that might mean for us as a culture, and then signed off.

At which point NPR played “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the Nanci Griffith version, with her delicate, quavering voice and the simple piano accompaniment that went with it.

The contrast still makes me laugh, even now.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, indeed.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Of Cookies and Cowboys

Every afternoon I drive over to Not Bad President Elementary School and wait for Lauren to get out.

She’s bigger now, so I no longer have to brave the scrum in front of the school itself.  Between the psychotic parents driving their 6L 900hp Ford Compensators (with heated seats!) and waving the drivers licenses that they clearly drew themselves earlier that morning using purple crayons and lined Big Chief notebook paper on the one hand, and the random ministrations of the local constabulary in full “I don’t have to listen to you, citizen, now do as I say” mode on the other hand, that’s a combat zone I’m more than happy to avoid.

So I wait up the street a block or so, legally parked and out of the fray.

In the past year or so I’ve even found a buddy.  He drives by in a little blue car and – usually on Mondays or Tuesdays – he’ll stop as he drives by and we’ll chat for a bit. 

Mostly we talk football.  This is an odd thing, really.  You see, I am – as befits my upbringing in the City of Brotherly Love – an Eagles fan.  I have been an Eagles fan for as long as I can remember.  I have been to a grand total of one professional football game in my life, when I was about six or so, and it was an Eagles game down at the old Vet when it was still the new Vet.  They lost of course – I think the Eagles won a grand total of five games during the entire Nixon Administration – but there my loyalties lie.  And my buddy is a Cowboys fan.

There was a time when we probably would not have spoken to one another.  The Eagles and Cowboys fought some hard games over the years, and the fan bases of each side regarded the other as somewhere between cockroaches and industrial effluvia on the desirability scale.  At one point the District Attorney of Philadelphia – a man who would go on to become the Mayor of Philadelphia and, eventually, the Governor of Pennsylvania – sat in the cheap seats and offered $10 to anyone who could hit the Cowboys coach with a snowball.  Many people tried.  I don’t know if anyone collected.  We all cheered anyway.

But we are both older now, he and I, and far from our respective homes.  We have mellowed.  It is nice to have someone who remembers the old battles, even someone from the other side.  And so we have become friends, in that special “guy” sense of the word that means we can talk sports and sincerely wish each other’s team luck even if we don’t actually know each other’s names.

It’s been a hard year for the both of us, fandom-wise.  The Eagles have had a couple of runs of smoke-and-mirror success but are at least a year away from being a team anyone needs to take seriously in the post-season.  The Cowboys started off well but have entered their annual crash and burn period – a tradition for the entire 21st century – which ordinarily makes me feel just fine except that I do feel bad for my buddy. 

The whole division stinks.  For a while I was convinced that six wins would take the NFC East, but it appears that eight might do it, and nine definitely will.  Yesterday the Eagles got destroyed by a team with three wins, on its third-string quarterback, missing its two best players on offense.  And the Cowboys gagged up a loss to the Packers so transcendently awful that will likely be the hot topic of conversation among the sports knobs on the radio for weeks.

I didn’t actually see much of any of it, to be honest.  They didn’t show the Eagles here in Wisconsin for some reason (I know, right?), and by the time I realized the Packers and Cowboys were on most of the game was over.  Instead, I spent the better part of the afternoon avoiding my grading by taking the girls Christmas shopping and by baking a stack of pizzelles about two feet high.  For those of you who don’t know, pizzelles are Italian cookies.  They’re anise-flavored, and you make them in what is essentially a glorified waffle iron.  My grandmother used to make them for the holidays, and it is a tradition that I enjoy upholding.  Plus the house smells wonderfully when you’re done.

Most of the pizzelles went to today's big Home Campus potluck that we have every semester.

But I did save a few for my NBPE road buddy, because even Cowboy fans should have something nice after a tough loss.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gearing Up For the Holiday

The problem with Christmas, as I see it, is that it arrives far more quickly than I am prepared for it to get here these days.

You would think this would not be such a problem, calendars being what they are.  There are 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, all year long.  No day is longer than any other, though they may seem so.  Theoretically the arrival of any particular day should be a fairly standard thing.

And indeed, Christmas used to take just forever to arrive.  When I was a kid there were years where I was convinced it would never get here, that I was stuck in some hellish loop that ran from November 29th through December 8th, over and over again, a loop that somehow seemed to contain mostly Thursdays.

Now?  Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, how is it suddenly the 14th?

I’m finally ready for the holiday now, though.  Classes are over and all that are left are exams.  I have made my peace with the incessant buzzing of carols from radio stations and sound systems in shops everywhere I go.  I’ve begun to think about the logistics of the holiday – who needs to be where on what day.  And I have finally, finally gotten up for the retail end of all this holiday. 

Yes, I am ready to go Christmas shopping.

This is the point where Kim looks over at me and just sighs. 

Kim is a planner.  She is a doer.  She is one of those people for whom the concept of sitting still would be anathema if she could even conceive of it at all. 

She has already done the Christmas shopping

Boxes have been arriving here daily, containing within them all sorts of things to be distributed – several of which I have been expressly forbidden from opening under pain of, well, something painful I’m sure.  Given my December last year I’m not sure she could top that, but then she knows me pretty well so I’m not really all that interested in testing that theory.

So here I am, all ready to go full metal retail and without any need to do it.

I may just do so anyway, because it is Christmas and because it is fun to find things for people.  It’s not the main point of the holiday, but it can be a nice thing when you’re up for it.

I’m ready now.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Meaningful Books

There’s a Facebook meme that’s going around now about books.  Normally I’d just respond to it there, since I like those memes and they’re usually pretty mindless, but this one seemed worth thinking about a bit more.  This is somewhat ironic because the meme specifically says not to think about it too hard.  But there you have it.  Irony: it's what's for dinner.

Find ten books that have stuck with you in some way, the meme commands.  They don’t have to be Great Works or prize specimens of Literature – just books that influenced you, that you find yourself thinking about long after you read them, that have become part of who you are in some way.

For someone like me, who reads reflexively, obsessively, and continually, the hard part was trying to narrow it down to ten.  I did not succeed.  But then I figured what would they do to me if I did go up to eleven?  Or more?  And who are “they” anyway?  It’s not like at the grocery store where some manager will storm out to the Express Lane and throw my extra groceries to the floor and then force me to put them away properly if I showed up with a dozen items in the “10 Items or Less” lane, right?

Come to think of it, neither is the Express Lane.  But that’s a whole other problem.

So – ten books, or maybe fifteen, in no particular order other than the one in which they occurred to me.

1. The Lord of the Rings  (JRR Tolkien)

This was my introduction to both SF/F as a genre – the sorts of books I read most these days – and to Deep History.  Nobody but nobody does backstory like Tolkien, and it was fascinating to read a story where everything that happened had been set in motion by events centuries or even millennia earlier.  This book is in many ways responsible for me being a professional historian today.

2. Capitalism and a New Social Order (Joyce Appleby)

This is a slim book, not even 200 pages, but it explored the intellectual history of early republican American politics in such a fascinating way that I was hooked.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of Appleby’s arguments, but her presentation of what it was possible to think about in connection with that period stays with me still.

3. Night Watch (Terry Pratchett)

Arguably the best and certainly the darkest of the Discworld books, this not only combines sharp humor with a solid humanistic moral framework the way the rest of the series does, but also presents a quandary that, as a historian, sticks with me.  If you could go back to a time of crisis and do it over, would you?  Historical contingency is a complex thing.

4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)

A lightweight, laugh-out-loud-funny book that provided not only a lifetime’s worth of quotes and references but also a shibboleth for much of my circle of friends at many points in my life.  If you didn’t love this book, we didn’t know what to make of you.

5. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)

One of my favorites as a kid, and still in many ways a useful exploration of how the world is and ought to be run.  The fact that my own children loved it too made me absurdly happy.

6. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)

This book takes as its starting point the idea that Jesus was exactly who he said he was, but that he had friends who were not similarly divine.  What would his life look like to those friends?  This is the single funniest book I have ever read and one that I have recommended to friends and family who span the gamut from atheist to evangelical.  It raises interesting questions about the nuts and bolts of divinity against a human backdrop.

7. A Canticle for Liebowitz (Walter Miller Jr.)

The first post-apocalyptic book I ever read and the source of a persistent fascination with that genre ever since, this exercise in Deep History spans 1500 years as human civilization struggles to recover from nuclear war.  “Listen, are we doomed to do it again and again,” it asks. 

8. Slapstick (Kurt Vonnegut)

This book was recommended to me by a friend who thought I would like it, and she was right.  Vonnegut’s pessimistic humanism struck a chord with me and eventually I went on to read everything he ever wrote.

9. Letters From the Earth (Mark Twain)

I picked this up at Mark Twain’s home in Connecticut, oddly enough, and it opened my eyes to just how dark his humor could be and how much he spoke to the sorts of things I thought about anyway.  If all you know about Twain is the Disney version of Huck Finn, this will surprise you.

10.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)

How do paradigms shift?  How do we move from one way of thinking to another?  There are a great many answers to these questions – almost as many as there are people asking – but I find Kuhn’s answers to be most useful in everyday life. 

11.  The Gone-Away World (Nick Harkaway)

Nobody has more fun with the English language than Harkaway, and he stands as a model for the exuberance that storytelling can be.  Tom Robbins is very much in the same vein that way (particularly Skinny Legs and All), but Harkaway is better.

12. What’s the Matter with Kansas?  (Thomas Frank)

Thomas Frank does more to explain the shift in modern American politics from money issues to values issues and what that shift means than almost any other author.  This is one of a small set of books (along with Nixonland by Rick Perlstein and White Protestant Nation by Allan J. Lichtmann) that really set my thinking on how late 20th century American politics worked and why early 21st-century American politics doesn’t.

13. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Richard Hofstadter)

The first book-length examination of the American distrust and disdain for trained intellect.   I wrote my dissertation to challenge one of Hofstadter’s arguments.

14. The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)

Witty, allusive, and a great way to approach literature, this book and its many sequels have kept me entertained through many rereadings.

15. Neither Here Nor There (Bill Bryson)

I’ve never been much of a traveler, but this book taught me to see the humor in it and for that I am grateful.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Faces of Lauren, 2013

About this time every year I go through the year’s photographs looking for something to put on the annual Christmas card, which sometimes doesn’t go out until February but it’s the thought that counts.  Unless you’re thinking of donuts, in which case the thought needs to take a back seat to the reality, and then the reality eventually gives me more of a back seat.  Thus we see the circle of life.

While I am doing this (the photo searching, not the donuts, although I suppose I could be eating donuts at the same time if I would only plan ahead for this sort of thing), I invariably find myself getting sidetracked by the various faces that Lauren makes – faces that kind of spoil the photos as far as the Christmas card goes (unless we only plan to send it to people with a very specific sense of humor), but which I find amusing anyway.

I’ve been collecting and posting these photos for a few years now, and it has gotten to be a fun tradition that Lauren and I share.  So she and I went through them and here they are, for your viewing pleasure.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Concerts! More Concerts!

December is the season of concerts.

It’s just structural, really.  School starts in September.  By the time everyone gets their instruments assigned and the groups get organized it’s a few weeks later.  You get two months to practice and then you have to get the concert in before there is a long vacation and everyone forgets everything.  And then you get to start over in January for the next round of concerts. 

Thus, last night we found ourselves at Tabitha’s orchestra concert, down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.

For certain values of “we.”

You see, December is also the season of, well, just about everything.  Between the onrushing holiday season, the end of the semester, and the general sense that the year is winding down and there is still half a “to-do” list to go from January, it gets busy.  Last night was also the big 4H Dance & Games Party, organized by Lauren and her friend Taryn.

Forces would have to be divided to accomplish a multiple-front mission.

So Kim, who is a much better planner than I am, handled the 4H end of things.  There was a lot of baking, punch-making, games-gathering, and general riding herd, and I never did get to see any of it in action because the party ended at about the same time that the concert did.

I went to the concert.  Grandma and Grandpa came down for the evening as well and went to the concert too.  So we had a good group turned out in support for our second concert down at MCGMS in a week.

This was a rather longer concert than Lauren’s, mostly because the songs were longer.  There was a short introductory set by a group of 5th grade musicians, and then the various MCGMS orchestras began their performances, youngest to oldest.

As an 8th grader, Tabitha is now at the top of the MCGMS heap and thus got the pivotal “last word” position for the evening.

It was a lovely show.  They played with enthusiasm on a cold winter night, and we had a grand time.

Good work, Tabitha.  I’m proud of you.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Clocking In

Kim has a new bedside clock these days.  I’m not sure how long it’s going to last.

For the last few years she has had something called a Chumby, which sounds either Australian or cheerfully obscene or both, there often being just the finest of lines between those two things.  I’ve always thought Australia would be a fun place to visit that way. 

But the Chumby was neither Australian nor obscene.  It was just a pleasant little electronic box about a cubic hands-breadth in size, with a screen occupying the entire front face.  Originally you could download apps for the Chumby and have them cycle through on the screen, but the Chumby business model was apparently flawed and the apps all disappeared some months ago, leaving it just a clock radio.

And then that died too.

There was a period of mourning, which I understood completely.  I’d feel the same way if my clocks went belly-up.

I actually have two bedside clocks.  One is a little rectangular alarm clock with big red LED numbers that my grandmother gave me when I was in high school, which means that clock has outlived her by nearly three decades now.  I’ll miss that one when it goes, purely for the sentimental attachment, though I don’t use it as an alarm clock anymore because it has the world’s most annoying alarm – an insistent buzz saw of a sound that would drive Ghandi to take up the axe. 

So a few years back my daughters gave me something called a Clocky, which is a 60’s-turquoise plastic thing about the size of a George RR Martin paperback, with an LCD display on the front and large white plastic wheels at either end.  It has a tweedly little alarm that manages to wake me up without destroying my nervous system every morning the way the other clock would do, and if you set it right it will also take off on those wheels and force you to look for it in order to shut the alarm off.  Other than a few test runs on this I must confess I’ve left it stationary.  It’s hard enough to get up in the morning without frantically chasing an inanimate object across your bedroom.  But I’ll miss this one too when the time comes, for many of the same sentimental reasons.

So I was sympathetic about the Chumby.

After a while, though, Kim got tired of not having an alarm clock and sent away for a new one.  It arrived this week.

Imagine if you will something that looks like a cross between a lava lamp and a nuclear cooling tower.  The actual clock face – the part with the display that tells you what time it is – is only about one inch by two, way down toward the bottom, and it shows the time with a dot-matrix of orange circles that looks straight out of the dark ages of computing.  The rest of the thing is a white plastic conical section about a foot high and about half that in diameter at the bottom, that expands out a bit before narrowing to about four inches at the truncated top.

It’s impressively large for something that is supposed to sit on your nightstand and share space with all the other nonsense that accumulates on one’s nightstand.  Perhaps it is designed to get you to clean off that clutter.  I don’t know.  Mostly it just forces you to shove stuff aside.

Part of the reason it is so big is that there is a light bulb inside of it.  I know.  Someone probably won an award for that.

There is an actual scientific purpose behind this, it turns out.  Apparently someone did some research and found that that darkness is bad for you if you want to wake up.

This finding certainly set me back.  I would never have guessed.

The theory behind putting a light bulb into the cooling tower alarm clock is that it will provide you with the light you need to make waking up a joyful and painless transition from sleep to wakefulness.  No, seriously – that’s what it said in the manual.  The theory here is that the light will turn itself on at the lowest possible setting about half an hour before your alarm is set to go off, and it will get gradually brighter, easing your mind into consciousness slowly until by the time the alarm actually sounds you will merely slap the Off button and bound out into the day with a cheerful smile and a song in your heart.

That’s the theory.

So far what has actually happened is that somewhere around the midpoint of this cycle the room becomes uncomfortably bright and you end up wanting to throw something hard at it so that the light will go out and you can get those last few precious moments of sleep in before the day begins in earnest, except that the thing looks like a cooling tower and you have this subconscious reluctance to throw anything at it in case you crack it and have to evacuate everyone in a three-state radius before they start to glow.

Of course if they start to glow gradually then I suppose you wouldn’t need the light bulb after all, and so we come full circle.

It’s been less than a week so far, so we’ll see how it works out.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Strike Up the Band

Last night down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School the assembled band members from a number of elementary schools here in Our Little Town – including Not Bad President Elementary – gathered together to play their first concert.

You should have been there.

Now, it must be said that the music was a bit rough.  Even Lauren, who was in the middle of it all, admitted that afterward.  Many of these kids have only been working with these instruments for a couple of months, after all, and the first time they had assembled together as a full-sized band was when they were on stage.  There were a lot of them, and there simply wasn’t room even in rehearsals. 

But you have to start somewhere, and it might as well be here.

We got to MCGMS on time and found out seats, right in the middle for proper acoustics – though we needn’t have worried about that all too much since 75 fifth-graders wielding brass and woodwind instruments can generate a fair bit of noise, particularly for the opening notes of songs when everyone is just bursting to charge ahead.  Enthusiastic bunch, yes indeed.

More musicians showed up than the teachers anticipated, so there was a slight delay while they rounded up a few extra chairs.  But eventually the stage was set and everyone came marching out into their places.

The songs were short, as you would imagine they would be under the circumstances, but what they lacked in length they made up for in volume so if you’re going by the total number of decibels per unit song it all evened out.

And then the filed off, to much applause.

We stopped by a store on the way home and bought ice cream, because it’s Wisconsin and ice cream season runs all year long and a celebration was in order.

Congratulations, Lauren.  I’m proud of you.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Training Historians and Biting My Tongue

Nullifiers!  The lot of them!

The problem with putting together discussion assignments for my students is that I feel academically obligated to give them enough evidence to argue either side of the issue.  This is how you train historians, after all – you set them loose on the evidence and let them make and defend their own interpretations.

There are several layers to this training.

The first one is to get them out of the notion that there is a Right Answer to any but the most basic questions in history.  There are Right Answers when it comes to the evidence – you either have your facts or you don’t, and if you tell me that the Civil War happened in 1350, well, you’re wrong.  The interesting questions are all interpretation, though – the sort of “who cares?” and “how does that relate to anything?” questions that everyone asks but not many people actually answer.  Those don’t have Right Answers. 

This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equally valid.  People who say that are just trying to sell you something.  Interpretations are Better or Worse, depending on how much evidence they explain.  If my answer explains more evidence than yours, then mine is Better and you ought to change your mind.  And vice verse.

At the level of the introductory college survey course, mostly what I’m trying to do is to get my students to understand that real history is about making interpretations and backing them up with evidence. 

Have a thesis – state your position.  Don’t worry about agreeing with what you think I think, because my job is to disagree with whatever you say.  You might as well tell me what you actually believe to be the case, because that’s easier to support.

Give me some evidence so that when I say, “I don’t believe you,” you’ve got something to come back at me with.  Interpretations without evidence are called “fiction.”  There’s nothing wrong with fiction, except that it’s not history.  You can make a good living writing fiction – if you do it well enough, they will call you a novelist.  Or a pundit.  But not a historian.

Then tell me how that evidence actually supports your point.  Evidence does not speak for itself and if you don’t tell me what it says than I can safely assume that it says nothing and you’re just padding the essay until it reaches minimum length.  I can make the connections if you'd like, but I don't work cheap and I get paid in points.  Keep that in mind come grading time.

That’s enough to work on, at this level.

What I don’t really push them on until they get to more upper level classes is the part where you, as a historian, have to prove that your interpretation is Better than mine.  That yours explains more evidence than mine.  That you can beat back my counterarguments.  Again, I'll argue whatever they don't, so which side they're on doesn't matter so much as whether they can stand up to crossfire.  It’s hard enough getting them to make the arguments in the first place, though.  They can take the next step in the next course.

But there are times when I really wish I could just say, “Stop!  Down that path perdition lies!  That answer is not the Best!  In fact, it kind of Sucks!”

Thus bringing me back to Nullification.

Nullification, for those of you not up on your John C. Calhoun, is the hallucinatory notion that any state in the US has the right to declare a federal law null and void on its own territory simply by wishing it so.  It gets more complicated than that, of course, and if you really want to delve into Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majorities well you go right ahead.  Be sure to take a bottle of good whiskey with you, because you’ll need it.

The bottom line on Nullification, though, is that it is utter nonsense.

You can start with the fact that the supremacy clause of the Constitution clearly states this, right up front.  You can move on to the fact that the Constitution was written explicitly to deny the kind of “states’ rights” bilgewater that had made the Articles of Confederation such a travesty of inefficiency and waste.  You can proceed to the fact that there already exists, in the Constitution, a mechanism for protesting federal laws – several of them, in fact, once you take into account the idea of the entire federal judiciary and the notion of actually winning a few elections and passing new and presumably more favorable laws. 

You do still see Nullification being bandied about as if it were an actual idea that sane people would consider – mostly on the right-wing extremes these days, which are awfully hard to tell apart from the right-wing in general – but the bottom line is that this is a discredited and pernicious idea, one that is but a half-hearted version of secession and thus constitutes treason when seriously attempted.

But as a teacher, and as someone who is trying to get students to make and defend their own interpretations, I just have to let them find out for themselves.

So last week they read Calhoun, or at least they were supposed to.  They read the various promulgations that came out of South Carolina in 1832 defending this indefensible notion.  They also read Daniel Webster’s evisceration of this nonsense, and Andrew Jackson’s brutal takedown of Calhoun’s theory as well.

The Best interpretation seemed obvious to me.

And yet so many of them sided with Calhoun. 

If they had a clear thesis, if they backed it up with evidence, if they explained how that evidence supported their point, really what could I do at this level but give them credit and weep for the future of the republic.

But next year, when they take the upper level version?  Then I argue back, whatever their initial position may be.  And we will see where that goes. 

If we do this right, if both the students and the teachers play the game the way it is supposed to be played, we’ll make historians out of them yet.