A guide to better living through cured pork products

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Things I read when I should be grading

An article by Clay Shirkey. I like the parallels with gin and the industrial revolution. Maybe that is because I am a bitter, elitist college professor clinging to Marxism, Guns, and Secular Humanism.

Textbooks: Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Look, there is a problem with textbook prices and there is plenty of blame to go around. I am pretty sore about this topic, because I just had to turn in my book order this week and the publisher has come out with a new edition of my favorite textbook, only four years after the previous one!

I'm a history professor, and yes some of my colleagues do not take price into account when assigning textbooks. But I do. I try to cap the book budget at $100 for all my classes. If I can assign a cheaper book, I generally do. This takes a lot of time and it would make my life easier if I just picked a pre-packaged textbook and document reader set. This act of convenience on my part would easily cost the student 20-30% more than my current reading list. That said, I can see why people are mad at professors who don't take the time to think about the cost of class materials.

Publishers are capitalist bastards out to make money. Like the article in Slashdot and the NYTimes editorial said, the cycle of textbook revisions has accelerated. Publishers crank out glossy textbooks with worthless and vapid on-line features, which add needless costs and increase profit margins. The publishers do this because the Internet has made the used book market more efficient. As a result the publishers have more competition from used book wholesalers than in the past. So they resort to printing new versions with more throw away features like CD-ROMS and on-line study guides as fast as they can. This is the magic of the marketplace and no law requiring the ‘unbundling’ of course materials can change the fundamental logic at work.

Finally, some blame rests with the students. I teach classes that cover the last 200 years of European history. I could hand out a two or three page reading list of a dozen articles and books that are superior to the dull plodding summaries offered in most textbooks. Most of the common primary source documents are available on-line or in various document collections already owned by our university library. The students could read these materials by looking up the journal articles on-line and checking out the books from the library for free. But they don't. First of all, reading and synthesizing that information requires more time and hard work than just picking up a textbook. Second, they are eighteen years old and want the convenience of a textbook. (I have had students tell me this in course evaluations.)

I keep assigning textbooks, because, based on exams results, class discussions, and course evaluations, students seem to read the textbooks. If students are not interested in putting in the sweat equity to acquire knowledge through the library they should pay for the convenience of using a textbook. Under the present market system, the publishers dictate the price of convenience.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Chocolate Crostata

A quick food post: This Sunday "J" and I made a chocolate crostata recipe from Bon Appetite magazine (May 2008). The pastry recipe was pretty interesting. It had a couple egg yokes, a whole egg, and powdered sugar in addition to the usual suspects (flour & butter). It turned out great, except my tart pan was only a 9" diameter instead of the requisite 10. My bad, I should have measured.

It tasted delicious, mainly because of the 10 ounces of chocolate and two cups of whipping cream that went into the filling. (Who are we kidding, thats not filling, its a frosting, and a damn good one at that!) The recipe called for toasted pine nuts on top, but we used toasted hazelnuts instead. It tasted great and looked impressive. I will post a picture one of these days.

Friday, April 11, 2008

HNN Poll part II

Some other blogs have had interesting things to say about the HNN Poll on the George W. Bush Presidency and its historic legacy.

Larry Dewitt. Follies of Instant History: 4/7/2008

Interesting in his assessment of the actual comments made by historians: i.e. there is not a lot of history going on or valid historical comparisons being made. I am heartened to see that HNN gave a dissenting voice space on the front page, although it would have been better still if they had given it equal billing with the original survey.

Less interesting is Dewitt’s argument about how all this relates to a “postmodern residue” in the profession. First, what is a postmodern residue? It sounds like that white film left on your clothes after using a deodorant antiperspirant with a one-word two-syllable name like “degree” or “secret”…

Second, why does a discussion about the applicability of historical analysis to contemporary events have to involve the “objectivity question”? The only people exercised about the “objectivity question” are middle-aged white men who still practice presidential history. They clearly haven’t gotten the word: the war between the history profession and postmodernism is over. History won back in the 1990s. You can go back to doddering around the Truman archives without fear of being shived by Jacques Derrida in the men’s room.

Ari Kelman. Edge of the American West: 4/08/2008

The Edge of the American West is one of the best history blogs washing around the tubes on the Internets. Ari and Erich do a bang up job of using historical events to give insight into contemporary American life. They have several posts that have asked sophisticated questions about the role of historical comparison when assessing U.S. Presidents, past and present.

My one critique of their posts, however, is applicable to the original HNN Poll as well. The assessment has been strictly done from an American historical perspective. Aside from gripes about the Iraq War, I do not think anyone has seriously looked at the effects of American foreign policy on the rest of the world when weighing the relative merits of various presidents.

If the impact of a President’s foreign policy on the world at large were measured, then the rankings would be very different. The legacy of someone like FDR would probably remain the same, because defeating Nazi Germany and militarist Japan was undoubtedly a great good. But other presidents like Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson would have to be judged much more harshly. This would also require historians to be less flip about their assessments of George W. Bush. It should be obvious that his policies are the logical conclusion of several trends in American foreign policy that date back to McKinley, Wilson and more recently Reagan and Clinton.

Sara K Smith. Wonkette: 4/8/2008

Wonkette deals with the HNN poll a humorous and offhand manner commensurate with the silliness inherent to the subject matter. Who knew Doris Kearns Goodwin was such a potty mouth? Bad historians… no biscuit…

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The HNN Poll on the Bush Presidency: spleen

In general, it pays to be skeptical of Internet polls, and the HNN one is no exception. According to the poll, 61% of historians deemed George Bush's presidency the worst in history. The author of the poll, Robert S. McElvaine, admitted that it was not scientific and that it may be too soon to make an accurate historical assessment.

While the poll may not be scientific in terms of its sample, I would argue that it was made unreliable by the way the first question was framed: is the Bush Presidency a success or failure? Frankly, if you disagreed with the outcomes of the president's policies in Iraq, or FEMA's handling of Katrina you could only answer this either or question in one way: failure. This does not even take into account the partisan ways in which you can read the terms success and failure. Finally, it would be hard to assess any president's term in office as success or failure. This should have been a likert scale type of question.

I accept McElvaine's assertion that its OK for historians to weigh in on the present administration, because they are the best equipped to compare Bush 43's legacy with his predecessors. Certainly historians are well positioned to make more detailed comparisons with the past. That said, the article was short on exactly those kinds of nuanced comparisons. The comments provided by McElvaine consisted mainly of the same generic (liberal to moderate) carping that could be had on talk radio or the Daily Kos. There were some references to other presidents, but these were not especially illuminating and generally within the reach of any local tv news anchor who had passed the US History Survey class at Moo U.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a republican party member or a supporter of the present administration and I voted against them in every election I could. I have no sympathy for the aims of the Bush Administration, but I am appalled by the lack of historical perspective demonstrated by professional historians who should know better. To that end I will post my own appraisal on another day.

In the meantime, duty (teaching, service, & research) calls...