Let’s Talk about Comps Exams

When I read @philommeides_’s tweet about grad-school comps, my heart sank.  The author expressed how her extremely difficult experience with PhD exams had caused her anguish and self-doubt.  The tweet elicited a large number of responses from people in academia about their own bitter encounters with the hazing ritual of exams, as well as thoughts about how to reform a broken system. And it’s no surprise: hardly anyone likes the way that PhD students (in the humanities at least) are tested on their field knowledge before moving on to the dissertation.  My own experience with the process was, frankly, traumatic, though perhaps not as bad as what others have gone through.  And as a faculty … [Read more...]

A Trip through One Semester of Historical Methods and Theory

Almost everyone who goes to grad school in History has to do some variation on the Historiography of Everything class, where students hit the Foucault, Weber, and so forth and instructors pretend that the students will actually read Braudel's 1300+ age epic The Mediterranean. I had mine many years back at Columbia University, when I was extremely green and had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I had the opportunity to teach my own version of the course for the first time this Spring, and it required digging up all those old tomes and dusting off the syllabus from grad school.  We didn't cover everything (if that's even possible), but we had a great time chatting about the totemic … [Read more...]

Introducing Doomed to Repeat, the Podcast with a Toothache in Its Heel

Listen to episode one, on the promise and pitfalls of school desegregation, here. Why, hello there! Glad you could check in! Have you ever wanted to hear what this blog would sound like in audio form? Have you wanted to hear experts talk about what they know best, but brought into a conversational style? Aren’t you at least a little curious about what editor Alex Cummings sounds like? It’s not as awkward as you might think! (Editor's note: it is.) Over the past few months Alex and I have been developing a podcast companion to Tropics of Meta that we are calling Doomed to Repeat. My name is Nic Hoffmann. You may have seen me on this blog before, and now I am here to talk in a much more … [Read more...]

7 Books to Make You Grateful for Your Own Family on Thanksgiving

Visual media have the advantage of providing quick comfort; if you need a change of mood or just an easy distraction, a TV show or a movie or even a YouTube clip can get the job done without too much effort, so long as said visual media is not designed by Ingmar Bergman or Lars von Trier.  Earlier this week ToM offered up its suggestions for films that touch on the variegated vicissitudes of family, on the theory that watching Pan's Labyrinth or Rachel Getting Married might put the craziness of one's own family in gratifying context.  Books, however, don't offer the same kind of instant remedy.  As Meatwad once said, "Books is from the devil, and TV is twice as fast!"  However, we humbly … [Read more...]

Settin’ the Woods on Fire in the Countercultural South

I recently contributed an essay to a volume that’s forthcoming from UNC Press called The Bohemian South.  You can count me as one who is skeptical of a tradition of bohemianism in the South, at least as it is now manifested and understood. Whatever bohemianism means, it is not skinny jeans and food trucks—a familiar scene one can find in the trendier lanes of Atlanta or Durham or Richmond these days.  Sure, there was North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where Robert Creeley and John Cage cavorted in the 1950s, as well as a smattering of other avant-garde cultures in the history of the South. But the bohemianism of today’s urban creative class seems like just a hipper … [Read more...]

The Miranda-Obama Collaboration (From Hamilton to Puerto Rico)

On March 14, President Barack Obama welcomed the company of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton to a special White House performance.  In his introductory remarks, Obama celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop rendering of Alexander Hamilton’s “quintessentially American story,” and quickly identified the reason why the show has become a “cultural phenomenon.”  “In each brilliantly crafted song,” said the president, “we hear the debates that shaped our nation, and we hear the debates that are still shaping our nation.” Shifting to the same playful tone that has characterized his other recent public appearances, Obama even staked a claim to his own role in getting the show off the ground.  He … [Read more...]

No, American Citizenship Is Not Necessarily Inclusive

The rise of Donald Trump has induced a collective shudder through much of America.  For many, the GOP nominee is jeopardizing our most cherished ideals, a broad and capacious sense of who could be an American citizen, and norms that forbid open and outright expression of racist sentiment. The last Republican president at least had the decency to insist that Islam is a “religion of peace,” however destructive his policies might have been to actual Muslims, at home and abroad. Liberals and more than a few conservatives find themselves saying, This is not us.  This is not the America we know. Michael Gerson recently penned one of the more impassioned statements in this genre, looking aghast … [Read more...]

Black History Month Part V: “Race” and Its Kid Brother, “Whiteness”

Every summer, ToM contributors revisit works that influenced them and meditate on how they've held up over the years as part of our Dog Days Classics series. These works have included everything from John Brooke's study on the roots of Mormon esoterica to Mike Royko's epic book  on Chicago mayor Richard Daley. But a quick look at our category cloud makes it clear that "race" stands out as a major theme at ToM, with "whiteness" not far behind.  While we've spent a good deal of time looking at Asian-American and Latino/a studies, African-American history has been a frequent subject for the site as well, so it's no surprise that Dog Days pieces have also touched on the idea of "race" and its … [Read more...]

Plains, Projects, and Alleyways: The Problem of Environmental Determinism in Architecture & History

Years ago, I saw a man at a Quaker meeting stand up and say, “Who you are begins with where you are.” To some this assertion may be self-evident, while for others it says entirely too much. One could say identity started any number of places other than place itself—in genetics, in culture, in social interaction. As such, the Friends’ meeting house provides a good point of departure for a discussion of the notion that people’s ideas and behavior are shaped by their physical surroundings. This “environmental determinism,” like so many determinisms, has been decried as too causally simplistic, for intruding too much on the ability of people to make their own world rather than being made by … [Read more...]

A New Look at Haiti’s Struggle for International Recognition

The following is an excerpt from Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (UNC Press, 2015), the wonderful new book from Georgia State historian Julia Gaffield. Gaffield looks at the tumultuous path charted by Haitians as they sought formal (as well as informal) recognition from other nations and empires in the wake of an unprecedented slave rebellion that sent shockwaves through the Atlantic World. The author also happens to be the discoverer of the only extant (and heretofore unknown) original copy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence (the subject of her forthcoming edited collection from University of Virginia Press).  No big deal. To study the … [Read more...]