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Memories of Michigan and Wisconsin
I'll be touring the Midwest this week for "History, Disrupted," my first visit since before the pandemic
A number of readers of this newsletter live in the Midwestern U.S., so I thought I’d use this week to announce two upcoming speaking appearances: one in East Lansing, Michigan, and one in Madison, Wisconsin—as well as tell you about the last time I traveled to each, in the B.C. era (“Before Covid”).
Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan) - Mar. 27 @ 3pm
On Monday, March 27th at 3pm I’ll be speaking about History, Disrupted at Michigan State University:
The last time I was at Michigan State was in October 2017, when I was invited to take part in a workshop hosted by the university as part of a project called HuMetricsHSS.
The idea behind HuMetricsHSS was, essentially, that in academia people were being rewarded for a suboptimal set of values. To succeed as an academic often meant to work independently, not collaboratively; to be hyper-competitive to the detriment of one’s colleagues; and to constantly publish papers or books at the expense of building community.
HuMetricsHSS sought to change those incentives, and the academy overall, by devising a new set of values that academics would be rewarded for fostering. Conceived in 2016 by a group of scholars from several different institutions, one of the project leaders was a dean at Michigan State named Chris Long. Long and his colleagues were able to secure a $309,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to convene a series of workshops, and I was invited to participate in one of them.
During the workshop, we were asked to identify various Ivory Tower activities—serving on a committee, peer-reviewing an article, etc.—and imagine what components of these activities should be rewarded and/or compensated. When working on an edited volume with lots of contributing authors, for example, allowing a scholar to submit a chapter past deadline should be rewarded, as generosity towards a colleague superseded adhering to a strict timeline. We spent a day-and-a-half in small working groups brainstorming such scenarios and the values we’d like to see incentivized therein. At the end, we posted our values to a large bulletin board. My group listed generosity, hospitality, care and good faith as among the core values we wanted to see.
The workshop was also an opportunity to network with colleagues from different parts of the country. I remember meeting a few interesting people, most notably Emily Drabinski, who was part of my working group and who would go on to become President of the American Library Association. I was incredibly impressed with Emily; wonderfully smart and extremely thoughtful. However, I confess I don’t recall much else about who was there and what we discussed—partly because it was 5.5 years ago and a lot has happened since, and partly because everything prior to the Covid-19 pandemic feels like an alternate universe that another version of me lived in.
HuMetricsHSS has continued in the years since I was involved. The project received two additional grants from the Mellon Foundation in 2019 and 2021, and used that money—more than $1.5 million in total—to host more workshops, launch a fellowship program, and create a “values sorter” tool that allows people to self-assess how they are embedding their desired values into the workplace. For readers who are not in academia, I thought you might be interested to see an example of how academics spend the philanthropic dollars they receive. Whether HuMetricsHSS has delivered relative to how much money it has taken in, I will let you decide for yourself.
One lasting memory from my trip was the beauty of the Michigan State campus. Prior to that weekend, my perception of Michigan State had been largely shaped by its athletics program, specifically its men’s college basketball team, which has been a perennial national championship contender during my lifetime. When Michigan State games air on TV, one usually sees the interior of the basketball court, not the grounds of the university. It’s a lovely campus, and I remember being charmed by the historic buildings, green spaces, and the numerous statues and memorials. That particular weekend was grey and overcast; I’m looking forward to hopefully (🤞) seeing East Lansing in the sunshine.
University of Wisconsin-Madison (Madison, Wisconsin) - Mar. 28 @ 4:30pm
On Tuesday, March 28th at 4:30pm, I’ll be speaking about History, Disrupted in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, in an event hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
The last time I was in Madison, Wisconsin, was October 2014—nearly nine years ago—when I attended the annual meeting of the Oral History Association.
Readers are likely familiar with the term “oral history,” which has become popular in the media over the past decade. Those outside of academia are probably less aware that there are professional organizations around the world dedicated to oral history, and that the national organization in the United States is called the Oral History Association (OHA).
The OHA has been around since 1966, advocating for best practices, standards and ethics in the recording and usage of oral histories, as well as supporting oral historians across the country (and around the world). In addition to the national organization, there are also regional and local oral history organizations, and in 2014 I was serving on the board of one of them, Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, or OHMAR. At the time, OHMAR was formulating a new strategic plan, and we were invited to the 2014 OHA annual meeting to talk about it.
The program from that 2014 conference is still available online, and while I don’t remember much about the conference, it is instructive to look back and realize the diversity of speakers represented. Panel topics from that year included:
“Ethnic Minority Refugees from Burma”;
“Grassroots Latina Activists in Southern California”;
“Workers’ Labor and Lives in 20th-Century Wisconsin”; and
“Perspectives on Creating and Curating Audiovisual Collections of the Long Black Freedom Struggle.”
If you listened to my recent podcast with the Integrity Institute, you’ll recall that one of the debates I had with my host—and have had repeatedly with non-historians—is the notion that the academy is only interested in the stories of dominant historical groups. This may have been true generations ago, but it is not true now—nor has it been for several decades. The diversification of the academy has been in the making long before social media; today’s activists simply may not be aware of it, or be familiar with that history. It’s a good reminder that not every social development is due to the advent of Twitter.
Two other memories stand out from that 2014 weekend in Madison. First, as is common at conferences, after the sessions concluded we went to a restaurant to socialize. At the bar that night was Legs McNeil, the music journalist known for being one of the original founders of Punk magazine and a former editor at Spin. If I recall correctly, McNeil was at the conference promoting his book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, which I read and can attest to being very entertaining. At the bar he was telling stories about David Bowie, Debbie Harry, and other music icons of the 1970s and 1980s, in addition to flirting with several conference attendees.
The other memory was attending a University of Wisconsin college football game. The team, nicknamed the Badgers, happened to have a home game that weekend, so I bought a ticket and walked to Camp Randall Stadium for, quite possibly, the most fun sporting event I have ever attended. It was deafeningly loud—80,341 people in attendance, according to Wikipedia—and it was bedlam. At various points the whole stadium felt like it was shaking. The team has a tradition since 1998 to play House of Pain’s “Jump Around” over the loud speaker prior to the fourth quarter (see video below), and I swear I thought the stadium was going to collapse. I had never seen an arena go that bonkers. The Badgers defeated Illinois 38-28 in a game aired live on ESPN-2. After the game, students stuck around and participated in more dancing with the players and the marching band in what is known as the 5th Quarter. It was well worth skipping the morning conference to experience such a spectacle.
(Below is a YouTube video of the first “Jump Around” at Camp Randall Stadium post Covid-19 shut-downs, broadcast on Fox Sports, September 4, 2021.)
That 2014 weekend in Madison was also the first time I booked an AirBnB. I mention it because today it feels as though AirBnB is omnipresent in our lives, particularly in the United States. However, it was fewer than 10 years ago that AirBnB felt like a novelty, an experiment in technology and human interaction. I recall being nervous about making the reservation and being unsure of how to check in or check out of my accommodations. The last night of my stay, I ordered a pizza and left my host a few slices as a token of appreciation, which he thanked me for the next day.
Finally, that OHA conference was the last time I saw Cliff Kuhn; he passed away the following year. For non-historian readers, Cliff Kuhn was an incredibly passionate supporter of oral history who taught for many years at Georgia State University. He was a legend within the field, a vivacious and kind-hearted man who served as the executive director of the OHA. He authored books about labor history and southern history such as Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948 and Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Mills. This obituary written by one of his colleagues is a testament to the person that Cliff was.
I’m looking forward to returning to Madison, seeing familiar faces, meeting new ones, and presenting about History, Disrupted. I’ll also be participating in a workshop with students the following day, talking about the state of the history profession and what the future portends for the humanities. And, yes, I will be staying in an AirBnB. 🙂
I began this newsletter with a reference to the “before times”: before Covid-19, before the pandemic, before AirBnB was a global phenomenon, before History, Disrupted, before this current phase of my life. I admit that from time-to-time I miss those “before times.” In 2014, I never thought twice about being amid a screaming sea of 80,000 people. Today, I think twice about going to the grocery store without a mask. I sometimes miss the days when I marveled at technology as opposed to being concerned about it. I miss the days when academia and oral history felt like permanent fixtures of society, as opposed to endangered species. That world was less than ten years ago, yet it feels like another lifetime.
Of course, the reality of the “before times” was far more complex than my memory portrays it. Even in pre-Covid times, there were dangers in large crowds (terrorist attacks, stadium stampedes, etc.). Technology has long been a cause for concern and academia has long been under attack. Such is one of the distinctions between “history” and “nostalgia.” The former is a critical and nuanced argument about the past based on a collection of available evidence; the latter is an emotional longing to return to a world that never truly existed. We cannot go back; we can only move forward, strengthened and empowered by what we have learned and what we have experienced.
I’m looking forward to being back in Michigan and Wisconsin this week, powered by fond memories and motivated to make more.
See you in the Midwest,
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