The New Wave of “What Ifs?”

Adam Pally and Yassir Lester star in Fox's Making History.

Adam Pally and Yassir Lester star in Fox’s Making History.

By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld.

Have we entered a new golden age of counterfactual history? It is too early to say for sure, as the history of counterfactual history remains to be written. But if recent and upcoming television shows are any indication, the clear answer is yes.

Last year, Amazon Prime debuted its immensely popular ten-part web series The Man in the High Castle, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel about the United States losing World War II to the Germans and Japanese. Hulu also unveiled its adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 2011 novel 11/22/63, about a present-day American teacher (played by James Franco) going back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Even more notable is the upcoming fall and winter television lineup for 2016-17. In addition to the second season of The Man in the High Castle (which was renewed after receiving unprecedented fan support), four new American television shows with counterfactual premises are set to debut. They include: Making History (Fox) about two college professors returning to the eighteenth century to make sure the American Revolution occurs; Timeless (NBC), about present-day Americans returning to the year 1937 and investigating the crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey; Time After Time (ABC), about H.G. Welles and Jack the Ripper battling it out in present-day New York City; and Frequency (CW), about a young female detective making contact with her dead father who somehow continues to live in the year 1996. (There’s also a bonus: American viewers will soon be able to watch the upcoming five-part BBC television series, SS-GB—based on bestselling British writer Len Deighton’s 1978 thriller about the Nazis defeating and occupying Great Britain in World War II—now that The Weinstein Company has acquired the TV distribution rights).

What does this wave of “what if?” narratives reveal about the status of history in contemporary culture? What relevance, if any, does the wave have for historians? Continue reading


Demonstrating the Value of History


Marshall students and faculty during a recent excursion to historic sites along the Ohio River.

David Trowbridge (Ph.D. Kansas, 2008) is an associate professor in the Department of History at Marshall University and the recipient of the 2016 Whiting Foundation Public Engagement Fellowship.

As James Grossman’s thoughtful article for the Los Angeles Times reminds us, the number of history majors has declined annually dating back to at least 2007. This disturbing trend may accelerating, as demonstrated by a nine percent decline in 2014. Challenges like these demonstrate the value and relevance of organizations like the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, as both organizations are working to examine the causes of the decline and recommend practical strategies for members.

As these organizations have demonstrated, our concern transcends self-interest. The capacity to form arguments based on evidence and the willingness to adjust one’s thesis in the face of new information are essential to the well-being of our republic. Our present needs the skills that come from studying the past.

For generations, survey courses introduced students to our faculty and discipline in their first year—a time when many students selected majors based on subjects that interested them and skills they recognized would prepare them for meaningful lives and successful careers. Today’s students—especially first generation students—are instructed to choose a career field first, a major second, and a university third. This approach leads students to believe that coursework should align explicitly with a career field that may or may not be right for them. Is it any wonder so many students are leaving college before graduation? Who could endure four years of training for an entry-level job?

Courses that teach students transferable skills like analysis and communication appear as obstacles when college itself is viewed as a barrier between one’s present and future. We must do more to demonstrate that universities are places to acquire skills that prepare one for success in a variety of careers. These skills are best acquired by rigorous coursework in master disciplines like philosophy, language, mathematics, science, art, and history.

Because I believe in the value of our discipline, I am happy to report that the number of history majors at Marshall University has increased in recent years. The increase is small, but stands in contrast to national enrollment trends and our state’s declining population. Pair this with changes in general education requirements that have led to reduced enrollment in our introductory survey courses, and it is clear that my colleagues are doing something unique and worth sharing. Continue reading


Using Our Training to Understand the Decline in History Enrollments


A graduate of UC Berkeley, Nancy Quam-Wickham is a Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, where she served as chair the department for nearly a decade. She is a member of the AHA’s Tuning Project, and serves as a National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment Degree Qualifications Profile coach.

As historians, we are uniquely trained to analyze why History enrollments are down, and thus, to develop some strategies to address this issue. National trends are important; many of us are overwhelmed and left feeling helpless by the magnitude of these trends. Yet local conditions, those institutional factors and organizational practices that have a direct impact on our enrollments, are critical to understanding what is really going on. The decline in History enrollments is neither universal nor inevitable; we can, in fact, design effective responses to stem our shrinking numbers, particularly at the institutional level. We need to utilize our training, get deep into the evidence, do our research in the data repositories, and undertake meaningful assessments of our students’ experiences before we sound the alarm about declining enrollments. If we do not, we risk that most devastating critique a historian can receive about one’s work: “Your analysis is not supported by the evidence.”

The number of students granted History B.A.s are in decline nationally, but so are overall History enrollments, not just among majors. In response, there has been a good deal of hand-wringing, as well as calls to action—most focused on the value that a history degree provides to students entering the workforce upon graduation. But do we really know why history enrollments are down? Is it just the economy? Will recruiting more history majors really solve the problem? Are students simply avoiding rigorous majors, like History, that require much reading and writing? Or are we just not engaging enough with students?

At my institution, California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), the answer is a resounding no. When enrollments decline, finger pointing begins. In our department, a new narrative arose to explain our loss of majors: Our introductory junior-level methodology course, which the administration had identified as a “high-failure” course, was “too tough”—it scared away students. The problem with this narrative, however, is that these conclusions are entirely unsupported by evidence. The story of our decline in enrollments is far more complex than the reputation of a single demanding course. Instead, students continued to pursue the major, take the tough courses, and even when they performed poorly, most returned the next term with a renewed sense of purpose. Our six-year retention and graduation rate for first-year History majors (at 88.6%) was significantly higher than the university’s. Most History majors—especially transfer students—graduated with a History B.A. degree. And we picked up a significant number of students who changed their majors to History—even during the worst recession years when the university drastically slashed admissions.

Understanding local conditions is crucial to solving the immediate problem of dwindling enrollments at the institutional level. A comprehensive analysis of conditions at CSULB reveals that the university slashed admission rates in the Liberal Arts—and particularly in History—even as student demand increased. Significantly more students were applying for fewer available seats; in 2011 we had an all-time high of over 1,050 applicants for 120 slots!

Here, institutional decisions privileged certain fields, particularly those outside the Liberal Arts. Enrollments in the College of Engineering grew by 50%, a result of increasing demand and more generous admission policies; in not one year did Engineering’s admission rates dip below 40% (compared to our low of 29%). The numbers tell the story: our overall admissions declined by nearly 50% from 2006-2012, but our majors declined by only 30% while our FTES declined by just 18%. We were still serving plenty of students.


The CSU-LB Red Pin alumni map shows the occupations and locations of unnamed alumni.

When such centralized admissions decisions influence our major numbers, we must address issues of employability and what history majors can do with their B.A.s. Our Alumni Red Pin campaign let us create an interactive map showing the occupations and locations of more than 400 unnamed alumni. A 2013 Payscale report showed that Long Beach history alumni earned the seventh highest pay of all history graduates, although the methodology used was less than rigorous. I shared both with the vice president who oversaw enrollment management; the next year, our admit rates rose from 38% to 51%, though I cannot attribute this increase solely to my outreach efforts to administrators. All historians should make widespread use of the excellent data available on occupations and wages on the website of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The median income for History B.A.s in California is $63,000, higher than that earned by the more popular liberal arts majors Psychology, Sociology, and Communication Studies, as well as higher than many STEM majors. In our classrooms, we need to create opportunities to discuss what one can do with a history degree. Law school and teaching are not the only options, nor for our students are they even the primary ones. We must become proficient at marketing the major in ways we have not had to before—to prospective students and their parents, but also to Deans, Directors of Admissions, Provosts, and Presidents. Continue reading


Moving On: NARA’s Role in a Presidential Transition

Archivist portrait and swearing in ceremony

David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

After the pomp and ceremony of Inauguration Day, a new President arrives at a White House that is ready to support a new administration. This readiness is made possible by months of preparation and coordination among people from across the federal government.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is proud to play a critical role in the transition from one Presidential administration to another.

Since the enactment of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which first applied to the Reagan administration, legal custody of the President’s records are automatically transferred to NARA at noon on the last day of the administration. Right now we’re in the midst of planning a massive move, and because of the experience and expertise of our staff, we’ll be ready on January 20, 2017, when we take legal custody of President Barack Obama’s records.

When a President has served two full terms, as President Obama has, we have time to plan. The decision to build the future Obama Library in Chicago was made in 2015, and this year a temporary storage site was chosen in the Chicago area. Our staff in Washington, D.C., have been hard at work for months, packing artifacts and preparing records for eventual shipment the Midwest. By January 20, 2017, we will have transferred hundreds of millions of textual, electronic, and audiovisual records, and tens of thousands of Presidential gifts. Continue reading


Historians Ask Presidential Debate Questions


Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy debate during the 1960 presidential campaign. (Wikimedia)

Over the past couple of weeks, we asked our twitter followers the question “As a historian, what would be your first question if you were moderating the Presidential debates?” Here are some of the best responses we received.

What would you ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump if you were moderating the debate? Share your response in the comments below.

What lessons might we draw from the past?

Historians don’t think that history repeats itself, but they do think that it offers some useful lessons.

Continue reading


Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part Three, Organizing Past, Present, Future Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the second of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts one and two.

Process: Can you describe how prisoners have built movements and spaces of freedom in heavily controlled and repressive environments?

Heather Ann Thompson: This is complicated and, to my mind, often misunderstood. Earlier histories of the prisoner rights movement have tended to locate the roots of prisoner activism largely outside of prison walls—they suggest that it was activists on the outside whose agitation seeped into prisons and motivated the incarcerated to mobilize on the inside. The reality was, though, that it didn’t take outside activists to persuade prisoners to organize. The conditions of their confinement were brutal enough that acts of resistance happened regularly and collective action was seen time and again and the most effective way of netting change. To be sure, it mattered that prisoners read Malcolm and Mao, but their material circumstances bred resistance all on its own. Indeed, it was the writings and activism of prisoners—think of men like George Jackson or Eldridge Cleaver—that informed the movement on the outside as much, if not more, than the other way around. Again, prisoners experienced a level of brutality and dehumanization that even residents of the impoverished and highly criminalized communities did not. The way they made sense of this—and argued as well as mobilized against it—was deeply instructive and inspirational to the black freedom struggle writ large.

Tony Platt: There is a tendency in much of the current literature on the carceral state to emphasize its massive power and extraordinary reach: a panopticon on steroids. The web of surveillance is now so pervasive, some argue, that we are all willing participants in an “infinite loop” of self-subjugation. I think this overestimates the rationality and coordination of a “criminal justice system” that is disorganized, often chaotic, and fractured, more like Kafka’s penal colony than Orwell’s 1984. Even when the penal system is extraordinarily repressive, as in supermaxes, prisoners resist and organize, from hurling their body fluids at guards, to seeking legal remedies to alleviate the horrors of solitary confinement. Continue reading


Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part Two, Hearing Prisoners’ Voices Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

Cover of a 1977 issue of The Angolite, published by prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Cover of a 1977 issue of The Angolite, published by prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary.

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the second of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts one and three.

Part II: Hearing Prisoners’ Voices

PROCESS: Recent scholarship on the carceral state, in the JAH and elsewhere, has focused on state formation and systems of policing and imprisonment. How does a focus on prisoners’ self-organizing and prisoners’ voices add to or change this conversation?

Tony Platt: There’s always been activism inside prisons and prisoners raising their voices. We mostly don’t listen. When we do listen, their voices not only add a new layer of information and experience to our knowledge, and humanize people who have been demonized, but also change the way that we understand the carceral state. Think of the impact on public consciousness of the prison-related writings of Eugene Debs, Kate Richards O’Hare, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Angela Davis, Piri Thomas, and many more.

Toussaint Losier: Scholarship that pays attention to prisoners’ agency, their self-activity and organizing, should remind us that systems of control, however much they aspire to being total, rely on a fundamental negotiation between the seemingly all powerful and the powerless. To some degree, this scholarship should make us hopeful, as it would suggest that however concrete state institutions might appear, they are in fact permeable. If we look closely, we can find stark examples of resistance and revolt, examples that might not only add depth to our understanding of the past, but also inspiration for what is possible in the present.

On the other hand, this scholarship should also be sobering, leaving us with a sense of how key developments in state formation have been initiated in response to prisoners’ resistance. The militarization of policing, the rise of mass incarceration, and the expansion of solitary confinement are, in part, examples of state building in response to resistance. In sum, this sort of scholarship points both to the potential for rebellion as well as the backlash that failed rebellions are likely to engender.  Continue reading


Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part One, Building Movements Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

Cell block at West Virginia State Penitentiary, site of a 1986 riot.

Cell block at West Virginia State Penitentiary, site of a 1986 uprising. (Source: Library of Congress)

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the first of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts two and three.

Part I: Building Movements

Process: What kinds of demands and visions did activist-prisoners from the 1960s and 1970s propose? What was won, and what goals were not realized?

Heather Ann Thompson: Prisoners have been treated inhumanely throughout American history and in every region of the country and they have always resisted. With increasing determination after World War II, and in conjunction with the rise of the black freedom struggle nationally, prisoners became particularly active in the 1960s and 1970s. On the one hand their demands very much mirrored those of activists on city streets—they spoke out against racism, against the violence directed at them by officers of the state, for better living and working conditions, for greater access to education, and for better medical care. On the other hand, as people under the full control of the state, their demands often and most pointedly focused on fundamental human rights—they demanded time and again to be treated like people.

Garrett Felber: The Ruffin v. Commonwealth ruling of 1871 established that a prisoner, “as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the State.” This meant that nearly a century later prisoners were still denied basic constitutional rights and had little access to the courts. But the demands to basic constitutional rights of the early 1960s expanded dramatically alongside broader transformations within the black freedom struggle by the latter part of the decade. This included anti-colonial critiques of the Vietnam War, labor demands such as unions, a minimum wage, and workmen’s compensation for prison labor, as well as intersectional analyses drawn from women of color feminists. Most importantly, the movement asserted prisoners’ humanity and demanded dignity. For example, the Attica Liberation Faction ended its manifesto in 1971: “We are firm in our resolve and we demand, as human beings, the dignity and justice that is due to us by our right of birth.” Continue reading


The Trump Challenge

Delton photo (1)

Jennifer Delton is the Douglas Family Chair in American Culture, History, and Literary and Interdisciplinary Studies at Skidmore College. She is the author of several books on race, liberalism, and twentieth century U.S. history.

When I was in college, my professors regularly declared President Ronald Reagan “insane,” “irrational,” “dangerous,” and “mentally incompetent.”  The same is true of many (not all) of my colleagues today with regard to Goldwater, Nixon, or George W. Bush.  In their teaching, they explain why conservatives are wrong or racist and why people fall prey to their erroneous and dangerous ideas.  These explanations are not necessarily wrong, but they give students a deeply partisan view of the world under the guise of scholarly objectivity or “alternative” history.

At the small Northeastern liberal arts college where I teach history, most of my students describe themselves as liberal and are already inclined to see conservatives as dangerous and irrational.  My aim is not to reinforce their prejudices, but rather to help them understand the rationality and merits of ideas that may fall outside the liberal norm but are very much a part of the nation they live in.   I try to avoid the alarmist hyperbole and dismissive gibes that a large contingent of my left/liberal colleagues typically dispense when talking about Republicans and conservatives, and ask students to consider the validity of ideas that they think may be dangerous, wrong-headed, or just plain stupid.

This year I am confronted with Trump, who imperils not just a democracy, but also this teaching philosophy.  True, I can find a way to teach about Trump and his supporters, to contextualize his unlikely candidacy in the recent history of political and racial polarization, the ongoing disintegration of anything resembling a national political community, and the politics of white nationalism.  But this adopts the left/liberal academic, New York Times perspective that I would normally want to disarm or challenge.  I could, alternatively, approach the election from the perspective of horrified conservatives and Republicans, who have been forced into a politically impossible situation by the revolt of their base. But this also affirms the liberal perspective.  Either approach implies endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who, despite her shortcomings, has the trappings of a traditional candidate: discipline, competence, a clear program, and arguments to support her positions.  We may not agree about her politics, but at least we can talk about their merits and understand how rational people might disagree about them. Continue reading


Using Objects in Teaching

Geralyn Ducady

Geralyn Ducady is the Curator of Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

I am the Curator of Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Because I’m lucky enough to work at a museum, I am able to scaffold my teaching with material culture. Since we are an anthropology museum, we aren’t necessarily teaching only about history. We look at contemporary cultures, too (and even subcultures within the “American” culture). I’m sure many of you know that people (kids and adults) learn differently. Some people learn best through lecture (auditory learners), some learn better by seeing (visual learners), while others learn better by feeling (tactile learners), and, really, we are all some combination of those. Traditional teaching tends to do well with the first two; combining lectures with a PowerPoint or with assigned readings. The last one, tactile learning, tends to get left out. Most teachers aren’t necessarily trained to teach using objects and relevant objects can be difficult to come by. For this post, I will highlight a few of our most popular programs and explain how we use material culture in teaching.

In our Culture CaraVan outreach programs, we have objects that complement the subject-matter from the Museum’s educational collections. Education collections are separated from regular museum collections (the one people usually don’t get to touch) and are specifically selected so that they can be touched (and sometimes roughly handled by children). Some objects were ethnographically collected specifically for educational use, some are replicas made by Native American artists using traditional means, and others were re-created by volunteers (but we are trying to move away from the latter). Aside from “objects,” we also gather examples of plants and animal parts that were used in the past. Examples are pieces of ash splint alongside an ash splint basket or deer antler alongside tools fashioned from antler. In one of our most popular programs, Native People of Southeastern New England, students can feel a soft deer skin moccasin that would have been worn by Indigenous people in the early contact period compared to a hard-soled moccasin worn under influence of the English colonists. Sometimes called ‘realia’ by Pre-K to 12 teachers, learning from objects makes the experience more tangible.

Used to seeing things on television or the Internet, students often ask “is this real? Like really real?” The experience excites them into wanting to learn more and leads them to remember more details at a later date. Continue reading