Friday Cat Blogging!

A Message from Pepper:

Yesterday Mom took me back to that place. I don’t know why, but I had to stay there all day, and they stuck me with needles! I thought maybe Mom didn’t love me anymore. I was very relieved when she came to get me! I was very quiet last night because I was a little upset with Mom for bringing me there, and also because I was oddly sore. Mom says the fact that I’m sore means I had some injections so I won’t get rabies or really bad colds, whatever those are!

I love my Mac

For a long time, I despised Macs. When I was in high school I worked our school newspaper, and we used Pagemaker on Macs to do the paper’s layouts. Those Macs crashed ona regular basis, so much so that when working one had to hit open-apple-s (save) once a minute in order not to lose valuable work. Not only was that a waste of time, but waiting for the computer to reboot after it froze also took way too much time. So I developed a decade-long aversion to all things Mac.

In the end, though, I was deeply unsatisfied with the Dell laptops that got me through graduate school. My first laptop had to be repaired when it was less than a year old; the on switch stopped working. Dell’s customer service was pretty good then, and the repair happened quickly. But when the computer died, it completely died. The keyboard fritzed out, followed by the hard drive (within about five minutes of each other). The warranty had expired three months before. So I got a new Dell, and this one developed problems almost immediately. When it was less than a year old, it needed a new processor and processor fan, since it consistently overheated and shut off. A year after that replacement, it started overheating again, leading me to conclude that Dell sells poorly engineered machines.

So it’s a real relief to have a functional new Mac powerbook, which I’ve been using for several weeks and appears to be working flawlessly. Not only does it have a cool feature that allows me to take goofy pictures of myself, but it doesn’t crash or shut down. It’s a strange feeling to have a reliable computer!

I’ve also been using itunes, which I enjoy (especially now that I’ve figured out how to make it pause between songs instead of slurring them together DJ style–that works great for pop music but not for opera!). I’ve digitized most of my music. I don’t have an ipod but I’ve developed a yearning for one. I’m also using Endnote 10 for Mac, which also seems to work better than the PC versions I’ve used.

So, am I a convert? I’m not sure. I’ve got my semi-functional Dell laptop set up at home, and I’m using the MacBook Pro here in the department. Rest assured: if the MacBook acts up, the blogosphere will be the first to know!

Hello! My Name is Pepper!

In honor of Friday Cat Blogging, I have allowed the new member of my household to introduce himself:

Hi, folks, my name is Pepper. I’m about a year old, and until two weeks ago, I lived here. Before that, I lived with some other people. But when I needed bladder surgery they gave me to the veterinarian because they couldn’t afford it. (I’m better now!)

I didn’t really like living at the clinic; it was really noisy and there were many strange smells. One day a very nice lady came, put me in a crate, and took me home.

I was really scared at first. I hid in my litter box and wouldn’t come out! But gradually I got to know my new mom’s house. She got me lots of toys and a scratching post. She’s even promised to get me a new cat house and a water fountain when she goes to Petsmart this weekend!

I really like the little bed Mom made me in her closet. But I especially like to snuggle with her when she watches Buffy DVDs or when she’s reading (she reads a lot!). She told me just this morning, after I woke her up at 6am to remind her to feed me, that she doesn’t know how she got along without me!

Some Harvard-related news

The Big H’s endowment increased over the past year, and now comes in at 29.2 billion. Wow. Now, I would like the university to pay my UMI fees out of that windfall, please.

I’ve recently been learning all the fees associated with finishing. There’s a charge for this, a bill for that, and plenty of fees to eat up my next paycheck. Surely a university with the Big H’s resources could help out with that? After all, six years of enforced grad school poverty don’t allow one to save a finishing nest egg. (Come to think of it, they don’t allow one to save much of anything at all!)

My signed and sealed dissertation acceptance certificate arrived at the Registrar’s Office yesterday. I think this means I’m officially Dr. Goetz.

There will be champagne tomorrow.

Thoughts on popular and academic history

A reader sent me the transcript to Nathaniel Philbrick’s online chat at the Washington Post about his recent book Mayflower. Now I’ll preface my remarks by saying I haven’t yet had time to read Philbrick’s book; I’ve been finishing my dissertation and moving to Houston and stepping into my new role as college professor. But, Philbrick hasn’t been shy about telling folks what his book is about; in the chat he casts his book as one fighting against the prevailing myths of Plymouth Colony:

Land was a central issue to the growing tensions in 17th century New England, but the war was not inevitable. There had been flare ups of potential violence for more than 50 years but those of the 1st generation had found ways to avert catastrophe. By the 2nd generation, a different attitude prevailed–on both sides. In many ways I see King Philip’s War as a crisis of leadership involving both Gov. Josiah Winslow and Philip.

Later in the chat, Philbrick also points out that one of the big myths about the Pilgrims is that they arrived on Cape Cod as a unified group; that certainly is an interpretation most historians would agree is invalid. The Mayflower passengers were a socially and theologically divided group. In other words, Philbrick has framed his book about seventeenth-century New England and King Philip’s War as a mythbuster.

But, as one of his readers at the chat points out, none of the myths Philbrick is busting are current anymore:

It’s funny: As someone pushing 30, I can tell you I grew up more with the destruction of the myth than the myth itself. For instance, my teachers tended to emphasize the nation’s horrible treatment of Native Americans than the journey of the pioneers. I clearly remember reading a children’s book when I was six talking about the horrible conditions of the early Plymouth colony and having textbooks in elementary school and high school talking at length about King Phillip’s War. And George Washington and the cherry tree? I was taught that it was a lie long before I was taught the actual story. I’m not complaining, mind you: I’d rather have the complicated truth than the clear falsehood. But is it right to say that the “myth” of Plymouth still holds sway? I think people are far more sophisticated about history than Yardley [a previous reviewer of Mayflower] may believe. At the very least, they’re more skeptical when it comes to unblinking stories of heroism.

This has been the thrust of other reviews of Philbrick’s work, most notably Jill Lepore’s review in the New Yorker. Lepore excoriates Philbrick’s unquestioning use of sources, and ultimately, his ahistoricality as well:

…he [Philbrick] finds most history books written by professors a chore to read. Trained as a journalist, Philbrick once explained his decision to include a bibliographic essay instead of footnotes or references to works of scholarship in his text: “I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history.”

Herein, I think, lies the root of the problem between academic history and the popular history that folks like Philbrick write. Academic historians resent works like Philbrick’s that claim to destoy myths that a generation, and sometimes two or three generations, of scholars have already debunked. Lepore points out that Samuel Eliot Morison, hardly a font of revisionist historical thought, published a book in the 1950s that raised many of the same issues about the Pilgrims as Philbrick does. If one reads works written later than the 1950s, you find Neal Salisbury’s great book Manitou and Providence, for example, a plethora of books about King Philip’s War, synthetic histories like Alan Taylor’s American Colonies that briefly makes some of the same points Philbrick claims to make in his chat, and even more recent work that elucidates further the problems of land and domestic animals (like Virginia Anderson’s Creatures of Empire). In other words, academic historians have been there and done that, and they were able to do so through the “scholarly apparatus” and scholarly methods that Philbrick finds so annoying.

So why, then, does the reading public devour Philbrick’s book but heap scorn upon the many books that made Mayflower possible? Part of it, I think, lies in Philbrick’s own attitude. Philbrick resents footnotes, emphasizes plot over analysis, and as Lepore points out, often takes sources on their face that historians would be much more sceptical of. In other words, Philbrick can weave a scintillating narrative without the substructure or the method that academic historians rely upon. The result, the reading public believes, is not only easier to read but also more accurate. Academic historians have a reputation for undoing cherished American myths: they abuse the founding fathers, European immigrants, and other assorted heroes of the American past. Instead of a simple truth historians present a complicated story. I don’t think the reading public generally wants a complicated story; they want it easy with clear heroes and villains, winners and losers. Journalists like Philbrick can give readers that kind of history.

What academic historians provide, however, is argumentative, provocative history that engages deeply with many sources. Sure, academic history is festooned with footnotes–it has to be, for readers should know where to look for the antecedents to particular arguments. That “scholarly appartatus” is precisely what makes our work transparent, and what allows us to debate our interpretations. Acacemic history isn’t always neat and tidy, nor should it be. but nevertheless, I think the reading public would enjoy academic history if it could get over its suspicion of it.

I don’t resent Philbrick for his success. On the contrary, if some readers come away from his book with a better understanding of seventeenth-century Massachusetts, that’s great. But I think readers should understand that he has done a disservice to scholars in the process: without our many generations of work, his neat, tidy, and entertaining interpretation would not even be possible.

Sneer at me too!

The Weekly Standard has included a course taught by my fellow Cliopat Tim Burke in a list of courses it decided have “ridiculous content.” You can read Tim’s syllabus and judge for yourself what you think of the content; calling it ridiculous seems, well, ridiculous. Tim has posted several critiques of the Horowitzian position on the contemporary university, and the Weekly Standard’s foolish editorial seems to prove Tim’s point. Conservatives criticize academia, especially postmodern theory and philosophy, queer studies, and women’s and gender studies, for example, but they do so without engaging with the content or methodologies of actual courses taught. It’s easy, I suppose, to sneer at something without attempting to understand it.

So, I ask the Weekly Standard to sneer at me too. I’m teaching a course next semester called “Sex, Lies, and Depositions.” Like Tim’s course (which is titled “The Whole Enchilada”) I suppose a Weekly Standard editor with an axe to grind might conclude, without seeing the syllabus, that such a course will amount to mindless fluff.

Actually, the class is a research and writing intensive seminar for juniors and seniors that focuses on Virginia’s seventeenth-century county court records. I’m finishing the syllabus this week (in preparation for next semester’s book orders, which have to be in in a few weeks). I’ll post the syllabus then. In the mean time, though, please, WS: sneer at me! I could use the entertainment.


I was really disappointed to learn that Verizon does not serve my Houston neighborhood, so I had to go with AT&T for phone service. I paid my bill last week (only two and a half weeks after I got the service originally, which seemed excessive to me). My payment was a day late and I got a nastygram in the mail from AT&T threatening to cut off my service, which I thought was just too much. Would any other company out there actually threaten to cut off service after a payment one day late and after less than one month of service?

Today I got an acknowledgement of receipt of payment:

An Important Message from AT&T Texas

Dear Valued Customer,

We recieved your recent payment of $64.11.

This payment has been applied to telephone number (713) xxx-xxxx.

AT&T Texas thanks you for your business and the opportunity to serve you.

Wow. The AT&T customer service is not only inefficient (sending out a nastygram after one day) but it also cannot spell. I plan on sending in my payments a day late from here on out, so that AT&T must waste postage on unnecessary nastygrams, and so I can see how long it takes the company to STOP THE SPELLING ERRORS.

**UPDATE 9/16/06**

The actual check with which I paid my bill cleared my account today, and on the reverse it clearly showed processing on September 7, the day the bill was actually due. So, my payment was not a day late after all, and AT&T wasted lots of money having to field my phone calls and sending me a completely unnecessary demand for payment. Wow. Incompetence carried out to the nth degree, with misspellings.

Next up: Historianess’s feud with CenterPoint Energy, which provides the gas for my stove. Also a tale of woe and incompetence.