February(ish) Links Round-Up

Erstwhile blogger Caroline Grego compiles a short list of history-related news links from the past month. 

The Academy’s Dirty Secret by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset

The gloomy news from the academy is nearly farcical in its pervasion and consistency, but such is the world that corporatizing universities have made. A recent study published in Science Advances surveyed 16,000 faculty members in business, computer science, and history at 242 schools. Half of history faculty members came from a mere eight schools.

Perhaps, you might say, these top schools simply produce stronger candidates. However, the schools ranked top ten produce three times more faculty than those ranked eleven through twenty – suggesting that this is not entirely meritocracy at work, unless one believes in a massive, mysterious drop-off in the quality of candidates between the school ranked tenth and the school ranked eleventh.

Warner and Clauset posit that schools prefer to hire Ph.D.s from elite institutions in an attempt to ape the practices of those elite schools. Fair enough as it goes, but this means that only 10% of hired Ph.D.s move “up” the scale to a school more elite than the one from which they earned their degree, and most slide 25% “down.” And it is even worse if you are a woman: women Ph.D.s slide 15% further down than male Ph.D.s (the study did not gauge how people of color fare, but it is likely safe to assume a similar drop-off).

So, what to do if you’re a graduate student at a nonelite institution? Well, one student interviewed said that “she labored so hard she alienated her fellow students, annoyed her academic adviser, and even sacrificed her health.” You can make and rely upon powerful connections of respected professors and mentors. Or, to chip away at this system, graduate students can attend job talks and finangle a way onto hiring committees to foster hiring diversity in whatever capacity possible.

The Heart of Sapelo by Chris Dixon

On Sapelo Island in Georgia, activist, author, and local leader Cornelia Walker Bailey revives and protects the Gullah Geechee culture of the southeastern sea islands, a patchwork of low-lying islands separated from the mainland by swaths of spartina-grass marshes and tidal creeks. For Bailey, Gullah Geechee culture, in which enslaved Africans melded African lifeways with the sea island environment, necessitates an ongoing relationship with sea island nature. Thus, this cultural continuity requires activism, as developers gobble up land along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts for beach houses, golf courses, and seaside resorts – much of it land that enslaved Africans and, later, freed blacks inhabited. This article charts the fight that Bailey has spearheaded to protect her community of Hog Hammock, population roughly fifty, against those corporate interests. The state of Georgia initially had decided to sell the land to developers, but the efforts of Bailey and others led to an uneasy truce in which the community is still state-owned. This is a moving piece that details Bailey’s activism, culture, and community.

Donald Trump and Reconstruction-Era Politics by Brent Staples

Now that you’ve read an article with hope and heart, let me dash those good feelings with a reminder of the national political field. I shall summarize this one succinctly: racial progress often fosters racial backlash, and that is why, almost eight years after the United States elected its first black president, Barack Obama, the likely winner of the Republican presidential nomination is a rabid racist (I speak, of course, of Donald Trump) who refuses to disavow the Ku Klux Klan’s endorsement, preys on fear, and is forging a brand of American authoritarianism. Staples draws connections between today’s events and Reconstruction, during which the sight of freed blacks voting and participating in elected political office infuriated southern white supremacists, who perpetrated pervasive acts of violence against African Americans to suppress African-American political participation and burgeoning equality.

Turns out that this 2012 Onion headline was frighteningly astute: “After Obama Victory, Shrieking White-Hot Sphere of Pure Rage Early GOP Front-Runner for 2016.”

The Dynamics of Retreat by Robert Brenner

Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara interviews historian Robert Brenner about the defeat of the New Deal’s promises and core pieces of legislation. Brenner argues that the politics that uplifted the New Deal also held the key to its undoing. Read on for a thorough engagement with FDR’s politics, the role of mass strike action, and corporate intervention during the New Deal and the decades after.

The Life of Jenny Marx by Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller

And finally, an extra that does not pertain to American history, but that I couldn’t resist including. It’s also another Jacobin piece, this one in homage to Jenny Marx, the wife of Karl Marx. A brilliant woman, her intelligence, radical convictions, and talent were subsumed by and sacrificed to her husband’s career. She “bore the brunt of the family’s illness and poverty,” attending to the business of running a household for her husband, who ignored these day-to-day struggles for his writing desk. She pleaded with relatives and supporters for money, and on one such fund-raising trip, Karl impregnated the family’s housekeeper and convinced Frederich Engels, his partner in thought, to claim that the child was his. Jenny died of liver cancer in 1881. At the very least, read the excerpts from her letters towards the end of the article, which speak to her pain.



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