Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What Not to Say (or Write)...a new series

Some of my students already know (and the rest of you will come to know) that I worry over some of the ways that American English is changing. Some changes are obviously for the better. I'm not one of those people who says that the language should remain unchanged. But, there are lots of ways now that spoken and written English are changing that are not good--they serve no useful purpose and actually only reflect popular trends. Some of them are downright inane.

So, today I begin a list of things currently in vogue in spoken English that you should strive NOT to say (or write). The list will continue.

Today's new, trendy word that is totally unnecessary--the very old fashioned "oftentimes." Why in heaven's name would anyone use a word that has three syllables when the two syllable version--"often"--means exactly the same thing? Where did this frequent use of "oftentimes" come from? I have no idea. But it needs to go away.

And one more thing: don't pronounce the "t" in "often." That's also trendy and also totally unnecessary (and, I think, annoyingly pretentious). For decades now, Americans have pronounced the word without the "t." 

Just say no to "oftentimes." It's ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Rodney Dangerfield of Supreme Court decisions?

I realize that many of my students may never have heard of Rodney Dangerfield, but he is a famous (and intentionally annoying) comedian of my era. His most repeated line is, "I get no respect," after which he launces into a long, sad list of disrespectful things that had happened to him.
Rodney Dangerfield Pictures & Photos
At any rate, I read an article in the New York Times today which talks about the Obama administration's retreat from the Bush administration's aggressive stance on treatment of "enemy combatant" detainees.

Funny thing: the article mentions several reasons that Obama has taken a different stance, mostly crediting world opinion, but it fails to mention the Supreme Court's equally important rulings in the detainee cases (Hamdi, Rasul, Hamdan, Boumedienne, for example) that clipped the president's wings and forced him to share decision making on these issues with Congress and to recognize detainees' rights to habeas corpus. Is the Supreme Court now the Rodney Dangerfield of the three branches? 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Money influence in our courts

Unlike federal judges, most state court judges are elected.That stems from the democratic (notice the lower-case "d" in that word] movement of the Jacksonian era. Elected judges, the thinking went, would be less influenced by politics if they were elected (I know, sounds odd, doesn't it?)

At any rate, we like to think that our judicial system is impartial and that our judges use only their knowledge of the Constitution and state laws to objectively decide cases and appeals.
But since the release of campaign money in the last few years, much has changed. On the Media, a respected radio program bringing news about journalism, has released a story this week that refutes the idea that elected judges are impartial.

Click below to listen to the podcast (only a few minutes) about how campaign contributions are not only helping to decide who sits to preside over a case or hear an appeal, but also influences how that person decides issues.
Click here to listen.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Short-term memory-itis

A few years ago, Bill Clinton came to campus and gave a memorable speech. One of his many themes that night involved our attachment to the new and our disregard for anything that occurred later than this morning. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram all encourage us to focus on this second. Who posted what in the last thirty seconds? That seems to encompass much of our waking hours.

Historians have our own version of this phenomena. We focus on minute details and short periods of time. A recent study found that doctoral dissertations in history reported that in 1900 the average period studied by doctoral students was about 75 years. By 1975, when the historical profession was in the throes of a movement called microhistory, the span was down to 30 years. My own dissertation covered 66 years--out of the totality of US history, that's not much.

Now, two historians are calling on the profession to expand its gaze again--to focus on the macro level--to see what I so annoyingly keep referring to as "the big picture." I agree and I applaud such advice to young historians. For more, see this summary of the authors' argument:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Like your free speech?

Anyone who appreciates our nearly absolute right to free speech in this country should thank some students at UC Berkeley from fifty years ago.

It's hard to believe, but as late as the 1960s, students had little right to express themselves or to hear countermajoritarian viewpoints. To learn more, click here for a fascinating New York Times story about the student free speech movement that was ignited on the Berkeley campus and quickly spread.

Only within the last fifty years has the nation adopted a culture of open expression. I'll leave any further thoughts about this to you.

Monday, September 8, 2014

As if primary sources weren't problematic enough....

A fascinating story on History News Network deals with the difficulties of transcribing tape recordings. Read the story by clicking here.

If you read to the bottom, you'll see how differently three different scholars transcribed one section of the Nixon Oval Office tapes from the Watergate era. It's absolutely amazing how these transcriptions differ.

So, although the tapes of conversations seem as if they would be perfect primary sources, we can see here that their transcriptions must be read with the proverbial grain of salt.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Constitutional interpretation

My constitutional history students hear me say the word "interpretation" so many times that they probably think I mumble it in my sleep. (I don't think I do, but who knows?).

Anyway, the Supreme Court has given us yet another nebulous term to "interpret": in the Hobby Lobby decision from last term, the Court held that a for-profit "closely held corporation" did not have to comply with the Affordable Care Act's requirement that birth control be provided its employees if the company objected on religious grounds.

Right away, constitutional scholars and pundits recognized an interpretational problem: what exactly is a "closely held corporation"?

Now that question is being asked as the federal government tries to grapple with a definition. To read more, click here. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Yet another controversy over a famous historian

Today's New York Times carries a story about Rick Perlstein's new book on Reagan. To read the story, click on the book's cover below:


This story raises several important questions and adds a new wrinkle to the publication of historical research: it seems that publishers are now shifting endnotes and footnotes (the heart of historical writing, if you ask me) to websites and away from the printed book. This has caused another historian (of a different political persuasion) to charge Perlstein with plagiarism.

The problem with that charge, though, is that Perlstein has attributed the other historian--but only online. So, the reader has to take an additional step--beyond flipping to the back of the book--and open a website to see the attribution. This leaves room for the original historian to claim plagiarism in the book itself.

What a can of worms this is! What do  you think, gentle readers? Is this a good idea for publishers and historians or are publishers looking for trouble?

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Why do so many learned people seem to start every other sentence when they speak with the word "so"? It seems to be one of the latest trends. I hear students, professors, even NPR commentators do it.

If you think about it, though, it makes no sense. "So" is a coordinator. It coordinates something that came before with something that comes after.

She did this, so I did that.

Starting your conversation or comment with "so," then, doesn't make much sense.  Does it?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A new semester...a new year. Resolve not to be passive.

Passive learner: what does that mean? Is it even possible to learn just by sitting and listening? Perhaps. But it sure isn't easy or effective.

Think of this: you're in college. Either you (through work and/or loans) or your parents (through their work and/or loans) are paying for this. A lot. So, why wouldn't you want to get the most out of it? You shop for bargains in your cellphone plan and for that pair of shoes you want, so why would you not apply the same kind of thinking to your very expensive education?

You pay for it; you should get something out of it besides a diploma and a 2.0 GPA. So, how? It's really quite a simple answer.

Here's the action plan:
1. Read and understand your syllabus--for every class. Underline important things. Put due dates on your calendar so your phone will remind you.

2. Come to class. Sounds obvious, but it's so important that it has to be repeated.

3. Read whatever is assigned BEFORE the class in which it is due. If you're not doing the reading, you're only going to get so much out of the lecture or discussion that is meant to accompany it. Not doing the reading may seem like a good idea the night before class, but it's a really bad idea ten years down the road when you can't remember anything from the class you took (trust me: by then, you'll really wish you could) and when your GPA comes back to bite you because you;ve decided you want to go to grad school. 

4. Be active in both the class part and the reading part. In class, take notes--lots of notes. Write down as much as you can. If you're always listening for what's important, your brain will be more focused and you will learn more. When you're reading, highlight or underline. Make notes in the margin (hey, the bookstore is not going to give you one dime more if you turn that book back in pristine, so you might as well mark it up). If you read actively, always looking for what's most important, you WILL remember more--and that always translates to better learning and higher grades.

So, here's a new year's resolution for you: give this plan one semester. Just one semester! Resolve to do this for spring semester 2014 and I assure you that your grades will rise and you will be much happier. The old adage about nothing succeeding like success? It's true. Once you try this, and you see the results, you'll never go back to passivity again.

How much time do you spend on social media?

In a couple of classes over the last few semesters, I have asked groups of students this question: how much time do you spend on social media each day?

The answers have ranged from none (amazingly enough) to all day.

But here's a little story I want to share with you. A few years ago, when I first asked this question, I got what seemed a mostly hostile response from the group. Their manner suggested that I had crossed a line by hinting that maybe they were spending their time unwisely. I walked out of that room resolved never to ask such an impertinent question again.

A few weeks later, as the semester end approached, I had an email from one student who had seemed particularly unreceptive to my suggestion that students were wasting their time. He wrote that until I asked that question, he had never considered the amount of time he spent each day staring at his phone. I got him to thinking about it, he said, and he realized that it was four or five hours every day. That realization made him consider that if he spent just half that time studying, he could do better. And sure enough, he said he was checking Instagram and Facebook less frequently and his grades had gone up.

So, at the risk of my being impertinent, I'll mention this: just think about it.How much time do you spend this way?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Super Bowl time: what has MetLife Stadium done for New Jersey lately?

To answer the question, what has MetLife Stadium done for New Jersey lately, most people would think of the upcoming Super Bowl. Surely that's worth millions to the Garden State and the urban area around the stadium.

Indeed, that's the argument often heard by stadium project proponents who want to pry loose millions of taxpayer dollars. "It will benefit the area," the proponents claim. "It will revitalize the central city," proponents claim. "It will fill the city's coffers," proponents claim.

In many cases, urban stadiums have not fulfilled those kinds of expectations. Here is a story of the stadium in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Read it by clicking this link.

In posting this article, I got a bonus. Not only is it relevant because this is Super Bowl weekend, but the story also involves Governor Chris Christie. It's a BOGO!

Update: this post generated a marvelous debate in my American City class this past Tuesday night. I had originally referred to the stadium as "Giants Stadium," but some in the room (Jets fans, perhaps?) took some umbrage at that name, and so I have bowed to their suggestion. And, in truth, the formal name of the stadium is the MetLife Stadium, and so, in the interest of accuracy, I stand corrected. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Another semester...and too much reading!

Why do professors give you so much reading on those syllabi? Along about now, you're probably starting to fell overwhelmed by what those nasty multi-page nagging documents expect you to do. (I used the word "nagging" because the syllabus always seems to me like such a scolding thing--it seems to say "do this, or else you can expect to fail my most-important-in-the-world course").

So, if I feel that the syllabus is meant to "nag" students, and I don't like the whole idea of nagging, why do I give you so much reading?

That's an excellent question that deserves an answer.

Here it is: because I only see you for three hours a week, I can't possibly go over everything that a college course needs to accomplish. That means that you have to read (because that's what historians turn out--books and articles.)

On the flipside, though, historians also talk--a lot. And we produce documentary films--a wonderful thing. So, you also get to listen to podcasts and lectures and watch some very fine documentaries if you follow my syllabus.

I can't apologize for all the outside work I assign (although something makes me feel that I should) because college is "higher learning," and that means more work. So, please remember: we don't give you all that reading and listening and viewing to do because we enjoy torturing you. We do it because we're committed to your learning. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thinking of law school?

Many of my students dream of going to law school, and many have actually gone. I wish I'd kept track of how many, but I haven't.

At any rate, for those of you thinking of going to law school today, here's an interesting article that makes the case for law school in these days of declining enrollments and poor employment rates after three years and much expenses in legal training.

It's a short article that makes the wise-investment-in-your-future argument. Read on. But then be sure to read the first comment as well.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Corporations and the release of energy

This post is motivated by a discussion in my Lawyers and American Society class recently, but I hope all my other students will read on as well because this is important.

The class discussion centered on lawyers and their work as "handmaidens to change,"** a phrase that I have borrowed and use annoyingly often in class to refer to the legal profession ushering in needed changes (acting on behalf of clients to make law through the courts before the legislature has had a change to pass laws on the subject).

Anyway, we were discussing incorporation and its role in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Allowing companies to incorporate helped their leaders to avoid personal liability if the company was sued--a necessary protection in a nation that hopes to encourage innovation and invention. Several judges, particularly Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts, aided the incorporation movement, helping the new nation to grow economically.

I mentioned states like Delaware that have adopted very loose incorporation rules to attract companies to headquarter there. Today's New York Times  carries a story about how those very rules are being used by terrorists and crooks to evade tax laws and to launder money. It's a very interesting read: click here to read it.

** "handmaidens to change" is a phrase I use so often that I've forgotten its original source. It's not my phase and I do wish to acknowledge the author, but it will take me a while to remember where I first came across it. I'm working on it now and will update this post as soon as I can and give credit where it belongs.UPDATE January 22, 2015: Now that I am teaching this course again, I have again searched for the source of the phrase "handmaidens to change," and I still can't find it. I do wish to acknowledge the originator of this phrase, but will need more time, apparently.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

New series on African American history

I have always assumed that my students, the vast majority of whom are New York State residents, have had a reasonable introduction to African American history in their high school educations. Perhaps that is wrong. According to an article in today's New York Times, most American students have had no such thing. The article suggests that they know Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the "I have a dream" speech, and that's about it.

If you are one of the students for whom this is true, then please watch the new PBS series done by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr"Black History's Missing Chapters." Read it for yourself, and then turn on PBS tomorrow night (Tuesday) at 9 pm to start watching.
that chronicles the entirety of African American history, not just a few highlights. Here's the article:

I will be.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Zotero: an indispensable and free tool for historians and writers

I can't explain why, but I have neglected to post an item about Zotero before, and that was a massive oversight on my part. If you've ever found a book that might be useful for a research paper or project of any kind and wished you could have kept all the publication information but didn't remember the correct citation form, this is the program for you. And did I mention that it's free?

Zotero was created by historians to be used by historians, but it's also wonderful for anyone writing a paper in any discipline. It can be used to cite in MLA, AP, or Chicago Manual of Style (the style used by historians) or any number of other citation styles out there. So, if you were using one source for a history paper on slavery--say, a slave narrative--and wanted to use it for your English paper on writing styles, Zotero could insert a footnote and bibliography entry in MLA style for the English paper and Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) for your history paper--all with only one keystroke of change.

Zotero is a bibliography software. Every time you find a book or article or other type of source, an icon appears at the top of your Mozilla Firefox. Click that icon and Zotero does all the heavy lifting for you: it instantaneously downloads all the necessary information about the source and keeps it for you--forever. You create an online account and, presto, wherever you are that has Firefox and a connection to the Internet has your bibliography. Here is a screenshot of the bibliography I'm building for my latest research project on movie violence:

Not one word of these entries did I type! Zotero did it all for me. And, as you can see on the left menu, I have a number of different lists within my Zotero bibliography. These are always available to me as long as I have a computer and an Internet connection.

There's also a portable version of Zotero that you can carry around on your flashdrive, if you wish. But I recommend the cloud account. More on Zotero in later posts. For now, go to zotero.org and download it to your Firefox. Then watch your source list grow!