Thursday, May 07, 2009

Keele Diary #3

Men were also not meant to take "showers" using a hand-held nozzle attachment drizzling water at a trickle. Be warned: An ongoing subtext of these diary posts might well be my lamentations about the state of my bathing situation.

Yesterday marked my first real duties here at Keele. In the morning I sat in with an undergraduate seminar in Southern history. They have reached the Civil Rights Movement and so it made a certain amount of sense to have me there to toss in my random observations. The students were generally prepared, they watched the first episode of Eyes on the Prize, which clearly had a powerful effect and then had a discussion centered around some primary sources they had been assigned.

Keele operates on a bizarre schedule whereby they have a twelve week term, but after week then they broke for a month for Easter and then basically for what is Keele's "conference season," which is apparently a pretty lucrative period for them. Academic (and I assume other?) conferences in the UK are different from the majority of those in the US in that they are self-contained. So if Keele hosts a conference, it provides lodging, meals, and even pub nights in addition to hosting the actual meeting itself. So that has been going on for the last month, while the students were either preparing for exams or writing their course papers or, as you might imagine, simply enjoying a month off. Now they have returned for the last two weeks of classes, which must be very difficult for all involved. And for those classes with papers but not exams, the professors are pretty much at the whim of the students when it comes to attendance. That a good number of the students sowed up yesterday is a testament, I would say, to them, but also to the professor, Martin Crawford who embodies the respected senior British academic, and the students clearly adore him.

Then yesterday afternoon was the roundtable panel on President Obama's first hundred days. I had been working on that presentation virtually since my arrival, and had been reading and thinking about the topic for a few weeks. My fellow panelists were the respected diplomatic historian John Dumbrell, Professor at the University of Durham, and Keele political scientist and historian Jon Herbert. Our event was one of several on a vibrant Keele Wednesday afternoon, so there was competition for the audience, but we had a nice enough turnout and the panel went quite well, inspiring a lively q&a/discussion session that lasted well beyond the allotted time for the session. Obviously others will have to be the judge, but the feedback I got was that I acquitted myself well in my first real public presentation of my fellowship.

The gist of my argument was based less on Obama's performance (shorthand: Fine so far, but too early to make any real judgments) and was more of a reflection on the hundred days itself. I started off by comparing the Hundred Days to the NFL draft, which I had to explain to my British audience, inasmuch as during and after the draft th experts will et together and act outraged or otherwise absolutely certain in their convictions despite the fact that no one actually has any idea how the draft turned out. I feel a bit the same about the impassioned responses to any president's first fourtee weeks, two days in office. Here, if you'll pardon the self indulgence (on top of the self indulgence that is this whole diary conceit) is a sample from my talk, which I actually wrote out because I wanted to make a good first impression. (If you want footnotes, contact me; I basically stole the Napolean bit from Alonzo Hamby, for example.):

We draw on the first hundred days from the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course. I suppose it warrants recognizing that the concept antedates FDR, extending back as far the references to the period after Napoleon's triumphal return from Elba. But that resulted, ultimately, in Waterloo. So let us for our purposes do what Americans do best, which is to say, let us pretend the rest of the world and its history does not exist. For Americans, and admit it, for the rest of the world, the First Hundred Days evokes FDR.

And with good reason. The first hundred days of what historians call the First New Deal resulted in a flurry of activity. The Emergency Banking Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Alphabet soup of the CCC, PWA, and the ill-fated AAA and NRA. Some worked well, some did not. But all represent the larger driving principles of the Hundred Days; Elastic rather than static, pragmatic rather than ideological, experimental rather than dogmatic, and flexible rather than rigid, the programs of the Hundred Days, indeed the New Deal as a whole, were intended to, as any decent first-year student ought to be able to tell you, bring about the Three R’s of Relief, Reform, and Recovery. (And to my colleagues in the room teaching first-year students, keep in mind that I am speaking of the ideal, platonic form of first year students, and not, alas, of either yours or mine necessarily. Think of mine as a normative conception rather than a conception driven by normality.)

And the Hundred Days is a tremendously useful lens through which to view the FDR presidency. But it is useful not because in and of itself it has any particular utility – our obsession with base-10 tends to make us value numbers ending in five or zero more than those ending in, say, 3 or 7, even if inherently they are no more important or meaningful, and expressed another way, one hundred days is fourteen weeks and two days, hardly a logical or meaningful measure – but rather we utilize the hundred day benchmark because of the particularities of the historical context within which FDR operated. Those particularities give meaning to the concept of the hundred days; the hundred days does not give any particular meaning in and of itself. This, I believe, is why the hundred days has been so appealing but its invocation ultimately so sloppy. Devoid of a specific context, the hundred day measuring stick is arbitrary and meaningless. In fact it can warp meaning because it tries to fit ongoing processes into historical boxes for which the present may be ill-fitted indeed.

What is most perplexing about the resilience of the hundred days is that it was obsolete with FDR’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945. How many people – indeed, how many historians – can tell you much about the first hundred days of the presidencies that followed FDR’s? And of the ones that are memorable, how many are memorable because they were part of an organized effort to marshal energies in that timetable? The reality is that the hundred days model was a one-off, a singular phenomenon that journalists, with the help of historians desperate to be talking heads (CNN: Call me!) have perpetuated long after the idea had any historical utility.

Useful invocations of history are cognizant of and respectful toward context. The problem with most invocations of history is that they tend to ignore the context in the pursuit of a usable past. Absent context, however, the usable past tends to become a misused past. And a misused past tends to be most suitable for the ideological present.

I then address the questions of whether the Hundred Days might still be effective as a framing device, and failing that, as a descriptive advice before moving on to talk generally about Obama. Professor Dumbrell followed with a wide-ranging discussion on the Obama administration's foreign policy, Dr. Herbert on domestic affairs primarily. Both, though certainly men of the left, displayed a remarkable willingnes to engage with Obama critically, throwing yet another wrench into the thesis of an academy beset with leftist ranters.

I'll admit I'm having one of those days when inertia has set in. My next responsibility is my research seminar next Wednesday, and the best way to prepare for that is to spend most of the next few days working on my current chapter. But not writing is the easiest thing in the world, so I've been spinning my wheels. Which surely is unconnected to the fact that after the roundtable a group of us went out to dinner at a nearby pub, where I then stayed to watch the Chelsea-Barcelona Champions League semifinals (Barcelona won on aggregate goals based on away goal differential in the home-and-home semis. Ahh, soccer.)


Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the students response to Eyes on the Prize and the Civil Rights movement. What did you notice about their reactions and how they used the primary sources? What books do they used, I know questions...

dcat said...

They are using the Houghton Mifflin Major Problems series book on the American South which includes essays and primary documents. Among the documents they read were Brown v. Board, the Southern Manifesto, SNCC's women's committee statement, the letter from Birmingham's religious figures followed by MLK's Letter From a Birmingham Jail, and a few others. The essyas included sections from David Chappell's "Inside Agitators" and something form one of Jim Cobb's books.

I think they really liked Eyes on the Prize. Students always do. These students are probably not less informed on US history than your average American student -- indeed there is one young woman who is a study abroad student from Southern Mississippi and another from Canada. They had pretty good comments -- they noted how the documentary footage brings Jim Crow and the CRM home in a way that reading a book does not do. It was interesting to partake in the class and I look forward to returning Tuesday.