Seven Honest, Practical Pieces of Advice about the Campus Interview

boomlogicThis is what the campus interview often feels like

I recently read a mostly worthless—and more than occasionally nonsensical—advice column at the Chronicle on that bogeyman of the academic job market: the dreaded campus interview. Halfway through the first paragraph, I was convinced it was a satire piece. But then I kept reading, and discovered the author actually thought she was doling out reasoned, practical advice. I laughed, I cried, and then decided to offer some real counsel, following the format she herself set. I suggest reading Hanway’s piece before continuing below. Go ahead, I’ll wait. . .


Back? Ok. Here are seven real bits of guidance for a campus interview. And I’ll preempt the inevitable emails by acknowledging (though not apologizing for) the rampant cussing from the outset. Words are words, said Derrida or Bakhtin or someone about discourse or the text or whatever. Deal.

  1. Worry very much whether they will like you. Your primary concern during the course of your campus interview is whether the faculty like you. Let’s be real. They might profess to care whether your research investigating kinship networks on the Aran Islands during the last half of the nineteenth century is edgy, provocative, and has the potential to make you a superstar (if only for the grant money you bring in before trading up to a more prestigious position at a more highly ranked university). But what they really care about is if you’re going to be that supercilious, cantankerous motherfucker who is a pain in the ass to deal with during department and committee meetings and in the hallway every day for the rest of their career. Here are some tells for the hiring committee:
    1. Do you wear sunglasses and/or huge, weird hats inside buildings?
    2. Is it clear you’re hiding your lack of social skills behind obtuse, wandering conversation that doesn’t ever engage the other person(s)?
    3. Do you seem like that asshat they remember from graduate school who thinks s/he is better than everyone else?
    4. Can you enumerate outside interests besides compulsively checking your ratemyprofessor page every single morning?
    5. Is your laugh like the bray of a donkey getting slowly castrated with a dull spoon?
    6. Can you wash yourself?

Remember: These people are very much aware they’re signing a lifetime lease on being in semi-close proximity to you for the next several decades. And (even though they’d not deign to admit it) they’re looking for some fresh blood too. No one is going to want to be friends with someone who nervously tells Holocaust jokes to the dean over lunch, and if you make them uncomfortable they’re going to vote for someone else. So, for God’s sake, don’t be yourself, unless yourself is charming and genial and articulate; and if you can’t muster any of these, be as beige an individual as possible and hope your research is exciting enough.

  1. No question is off limits. Deal with it. You should answer every single question they ask you, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you or illegal it seems, with aplomb. Stuttering things like “My advisor told me never to admit to you I’m a polygamist with six partners, all of whom are also looking for tenure-track positions studying gender dynamics and social structures of the modern world” makes you sound like you’ve never been asked by a student why you look like a zombie during lecture, or had to sit next to Handsy Pete on the afternoon bus route. Awkward, canned responses which feel memorized will engender feelings of awkwardness until it all spirals out of control and you’re sitting in a silent room filled only by the increasingly loud whimpers of your inner panic. That emeritus professor who just revealed himself as the moron who doesn’t realize he just opened up the department to every litigious job candidate in the world is the same one the rest of the hiring committee has been dealing with for years, and every department has one. They know he’s an idiot. So the answer you give is not for him—no one listens to him anyway—but for the rest of the people in the room. Questions like “I see you’re wearing an engagement ring. What does your fiancé think of your taking a job here?” should be answered in a way that shows you will be able to handle this mouth-breather’s inappropriateness when it inevitably comes around in the department. You can answer honestly (“My fiancé knows the current market as well as I do, which is to say s/he’s aware of the frighteningly few number of excellent jobs like this out there, and that this is the type of decision that means weighing all our options”) or dishonestly (“If graduate school taught us anything it’s that the real world comes first—job prospects included. We’ve lived apart before, and have agreed we can do it again”), or in some other way that makes it clear you can answer a question without answering the question (“We’re not that close, so we haven’t talked about it yet. She thinks I’m in Uganda with Doctors Without Borders”). Come on people. If you’ve never learned how to give a non-response that would require your audience to reveal him or herself as a rude or uninformed asshole in pursuing that line of inquiry, then you’ve probably never presented a paper at a conference or stood at the front of the classroom, and if this is the case you’ve got bigger problems.
  2. Don’t ignore the college’s religious affiliation, if there is one. This is the single piece of good advice. Wish the article had started and ended here. Know the place to which you are applying.
  3. Sometimes people ask weird questions, because we’re all making it up as we go along. Again, deal with it. When at a campus interview, be aware that, unlike reality TV and at the dinner table across from your partner of ten years, questions and answers are not going to be scripted. This is real life people. Trading on clichés like “Professors only ask questions that let them pontificate upon the topic of their most recent book” to turn random and odd questions back on the asker make you seem like a pandering, condescending dullard with no conversational skills. Don’t know who’s playing in the Super Bowl? Neither do I, because I’ve been working eighty fucking hours a week on an adjunct salary trying to get you to invite me to a campus interview while pretending I’d go back and do it all again. Admit it: “The only things I know about sports are what my Facebook friends who never left our high school town post.” Want more? Here’s a primer for you all—repeat after me: Sports are stupid. Putin is a moron. Anyone who spells his or her name with symbols is a rapper, and can be ignored. Every company in the world wants to know everything about you. Hackers and the government already do. Next question.
  4. If you must lie your ass off (and you will), commit to it. There’s nothing wrong with lying indiscriminately to people you don’t know, but if you’re going to do it do it consistently. “But this is common sense,” you say to me. I thought so too, but apparently not. Campus-Interview-Ry is different than Professor-Ry is different than Author-Ry is different than Sweet-Tender-Lovin’-Ry. Pick your persona; it’s the good parts of you mixed with half-truths and outright fabrications, and then stick to your goddamn story. Also, pro-tip for life: if there’s an iota of a chance you have a friend in the department who is going to purposefully rat you out to get tenure points behind closed doors, s/he is not your friend. Jesus. Like this has to be said aloud. Loyalty is like love. It’s an absolute, and cannot be reversed. If this sounds naïve to you, then you’ve clearly never loved nor trusted anyone, and I am sad for you.
  5. Alcohol! Unlike what some advice pieces claim, hiring committees will not make you “aggressively refuse alcohol.” As in no. 2 above, if someone is on your case to get wasted despite a single polite refusal that you don’t drink, that person is an alcoholic and no one else in the room gives a shit how you refuse them. Still, be a regular person and don’t hang around either the precipitating environment (the bar) or the poor soul who has no outside friends and so gets purposefully drunk alone with professional colleagues. Go talk to someone who has had the same drink in her/his hand the whole night. On the flip side: if there’s alcohol and some expectation that you should drink if you do drink, go for it. If it seems like everyone is going for a one-drink maximum, follow suit. Otherwise, be a grown-ass person. That’s all I can say. If you made it through graduate school you know how to drink (as well as decline drinking) in front of your colleagues (as these folks are now) as well as your professors—a much more intimidating crowd. Do we really need to spend time on this?
  6. Etiquette and dress? Holy shit. You want me to give you etiquette and dress advice for the campus interview? Why? If you need it, a hundred and fifty words here aren’t going to set you straight. Sorry. Just the way it is. It’s like that episode of “The Office” where Pam idiotically suggests giving the salesmen an iPod to keep them happy. In 2009. If they don’t have one already, they don’t want one. If you can’t dress yourself and chew with your mouth closed by now, good luck finding a job ever. Maybe try Amazon. I hear their warehouses are hiring.
  7. BONUS: Know thyself. Ignore every bit of the above advice if you want, so long as you remember this: Your primary task before the interview is to figure out who you are as a job applicant, and learn how to appreciate (and communicate) those skills that make you desirable. Maybe you’re a genuine teacher, that one in a hundred among college profs who we all remember made us more passionate and more engaged and more critical in the classroom. Maybe you earn your bones as that researcher who exudes such a deep knowledge of your specialty that you can tell us the under-over on the bond market in 1872 and its importance in building out the railroads. Or you have that knack for connecting with breathtaking clarity the relevance of your research to the contemporary world in terms of culture, politics, or policy. Or you’re capable of consuming the mental lives of brilliant people from the past and explaining their respective worlds in digestible ways to the rest of us poor human sops who have to choose between understanding Joseph Hooker and Joseph Priestley. Whatever. Know what makes you stand out, and take pains to remind the hiring committee why they’d be lucky to have you.

Part of me wants to leave well enough alone and let this sit in draft mode after having gotten it off my chest, because your collective loss is my gain. But then I remember I wrote this thing about people in the humanities getting their collective shit together, and I reluctantly hit the publish button.

I will end only with the admonition that you should take all advice about the application process—including that which you read here—with a sasquatch-sized grain of salt, because we’re all just making it up as we go along. But come on Chronicle. You’re better than this.

How Not to Fix Health Care: Steven Brill’s Time Magazine Piece is Disappointing, Uncomplicated, and Naïve

brill-cover-final

Steven Brill, the author of the well-known Time piece “America’s Bitter Pill” (now a book), recently published something of a follow-up story in the magazine called “What I Learned from My $190,000 Surgery.” Aside from a title indicative of a print world attempting desperately to stay relevant in an increasingly digital, clickbait-ridden universe, it’s not a terribly written article. If I were still teaching comp-lit to freshmen, I’d point out the mish-mash of ethos and pathos in that title as well, as if simply receiving a surgery approaching a quarter million dollars confers some type of authority, and how we’re supposed to empathize with this journey of Brill’s as it becomes clear that this shocking sum of money is something each of us could easily fall under the aegis of in the current medical therapeutics landscape. But cheap tricks aside, it’s generally readable and full of some useful statistics, like the astonishing sum the U.S. spends on healthcare each year—$3 trillion.

And yet, at the end of this piece which employs the age-old rhetorical trick of calling something broken and suggesting the best way to fix it is, inconceivably (at first…), to let events run their course, I found myself just mostly disappointed. Dramatic fixes to the desperate problems of health care in America are a dime a dozen these days, and this essay—despite my hopes—offers nothing really very new.

Brill’s argument, seemingly one the reader should intimate during the course of the piece is that those we look up to to fix these fragile meat-sacks we call bodies (doctors) are also in some places increasingly those we have been conditioned to loathe in this “capitalist” world (health insurers, and large corporations, and the avaricious), and rather than a harbinger of the coming Armageddon this is in fact A Good Thing. These doctor-entrepreneurs, the author suggests, who (the historically uninformed among us assume) revolutionarily step across the traditional divide between treating disease and paying for that treatment, are not in fact indicative of a system in deterioration, but rather in rebirth. We only need to help it along. In this way we can cut costs while simultaneously ensuring an excellent standard of care in our clinics, hospitals, and emergency rooms. By letting hospitals offer insurance, he declares, we cut out a middleman who remains at a distance from the act of medicine as it takes place. Doctors would no longer inflate the costs of the medical care they provide, because they’re the ones paying for it. Seems commonsensical, right?

And yet, like so many other simple solutions to complex answers, Brill’s falls apart once it’s removed from the neat and uncomplicated place where thought experiments are conducted.

Brill assures us his solution would elegantly solve many of our current woes, and yet from the outset I’m suspicious of anyone who looks at a bad situation getting worse and suggests that the best solution is to lean into it. He does nothing to allay those anxieties.

The piece is remarkably absent of any sense of how, for instance, medical care costs for regular people have fallen in the area served by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—one of these revolutionary new systems headed by Jeffrey Romoff, who’s managed to buy up a significant percentage of doctor’s practices, clinics, and hospitals in the region and extend his hospital’s health insurance division’s market share at the expense of traditional insurance.

It treats not at all geographic disparities in both income and quality of care in the United States—one of, in my eyes, the single things nationally penetrating insurance companies can offset to some degree by shifting costs from those who can’t afford to pay to those who can, and offering networks of knowledge and expertise so that patients can go to where the best treatment is.

Brill assures us competition, that magical force of the free market, would ensure the best medicine at the best price. How? Regulation, of course, that magical, opposite force of the social welfare state! Contradictory? Not necessarily, but I’ve never met a federal regulatory agency doing its job well, so it’s an uphill case to be made for that being the sole line of defense between us and them.

Similarly confounding is Brill’s argument that at least two of these entities in a given market would prevent monopolistic practices, with naught to help but a little government oversight. Right. In an industry worth $3 trillion. By comparison, the cable industry (Comcast-TWC-etc) is maybe a tenth as big, and we all know the FCC and Congress do an excellent job of keeping things equitable, consumer-friendly, and above-board.

I have no solutions for you here, but I do have a suggestion: let’s stop pretending health care is something that can be fixed with simple economics. Health and wellness are schemas that are way too complicated to be quantified that easily, and echo across all the registers of a modern society. They’re ineluctably rooted in what we imagine good health to be, as well as what it’s not. Their theorization, definition, and enactment necessitate acknowledging all of the multifarious economic, cultural, social, and psychological forces of three hundred million people who don’t want to be sick at the lowest possible cost but then will spend anything to stave off death for a few more days, weeks, months, and years. If we stop pretending the solution can neglect all these things, maybe we can get somewhere.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2014

Jesus, it’s been 6 weeks since my last post. I do apologize for that. But the dissertation is done and defended, so I’ll use that as an excuse. I’ve been moving some revised and edited versions of previous posts over to my other home at slowloris.scienceblog.com as well, so that’s taken some time.

2014 was a weak year for me, book-wise. I don’t really know what it was. Both quantity (52 books and 18.5k pages) and quality. I lost the whole months of November and December, historically a good time as the semester wraps up and I finally pick up the books that have been burning a hole in my Amazon cart for months. Blame it on Stephen King. I started the unabridged version of King’s The Last Stand, finally, at the beginning of November, and it sucked the life out of me for a good three weeks until I stopped reading at page 782. Then I had to spend a week recovering from it and moving on. I get it, King is beloved. But I prefer my clashes between good and evil to be a little less stilted, a more complicated. It wasn’t a bad book, but it certainly demonstrates the good work an editor does in saying “cut this shit down.”

The Martian was my favorite book of the year. It won the Goodread’s Choice Award for best new author too, which it richly deserved. Ready Player One was a close second. That Ernest Cline, he can write a good yarn. I had extremely high hopes for the Kollin brothers’ second book after The Unincorporated Man, but damn me if it wasn’t just horrible. Hate when that happens. Thus, my top ten:

 

1/17/2014 Ramez Nam- Crux 512 A
1/29/2014 Charles Stross Wilson- Spin 366 B+
2/25/2014 Kollin bros.- The Unincorporated Man 496 A-
4/8/2014 Ernest Cline- Ready Player One 384 A
5/10/2014 Andy Weir- The Martian 384 A
6/3/2014 Jim Butcher- Skin Game 454 A
6/18/2014 Hannu Rajaniemi- The Quantum Thief 330 B
6/28/2014 Paolo Bacigalupi- The Windup Girl 359 B+
9/14/2014 Richard Kadrey- Butcher Bird 256 B+
9/21/2014 Richard Kadrey- Devil in the Dollhouse 100 B+
10/21/2014 Larry Niven- The Draco Tavern 340 A

 

Here’s the rest of the list, if you’re so inclined:

 

1/4/2014 John Scalzi- Ghost Brigades 347 A
1/8/2014 John Scalzi- The Last Colony 324 A
1/11/2014 Jon Spiro- Defending the Master Race 390 NA
1/13/2014 Alexandra Stern- Telling Genes 74 NA
1/14/2014 Ramez Nam- Nexus 460 B
1/17/2014 Ramez Nam- Crux 512 A
1/29/2014 Charles Stross Wilson- Spin 366 B+
2/3/2014 Max Brooks- World War Z 110 C
2/5/2014 John Coe- Executable 406 C
2/11/2014 Wes Chu- The Lives of Tao 460 B
2/14/2014 Wes Chu- The Deaths of Tao 462 B
2/18/2014 Myke Cole- Shadow Ops: Control Point 400 C
2/25/2014 Kollin bros.- The Unincorporated Man 496 A-
3/9/2014 Jim Butcher- Grave Peril 378 A
3/18/2014 Jim Butcher- Death Masks 464 A
3/21/2014 Jim Butcher- Blood Rites 372 A
3/24/2014 Jim Butcher- Dead Beat 528 A
4/8/2014 Ernest Cline- Ready Player One 384 A
4/19/2014 Emma Tanner Wood- Too Fit for the Unfit 122 NA
5/2/2014 Kollin bros.- The Unincorporated War 300 F
5/7/2014 Chuck Wendig- Blackbirds 381 B-
5/10/2014 Andy Weir- The Martian 384 A
5/11/2014 Garcia and Stohl- Beautiful Creatures 564 D
5/27/2014 Mark Fiege- Republic of Nature 357 NA
6/3/2014 Jim Butcher- Skin Game 454 A
6/10/2014 Jeff Vandermeer- Annihilation 195 B
6/18/2013 Hannu Rajaniemi- The Quantum Thief 330 B
6/28/2014 Paolo Bacigalupi- The Windup Girl 359 B+
7/6/2014 William Gibson- All Tomorrow’s Parties 352 B
7/10/2014 John Conroe- God Touched 164 C+
7/11/2014 Jon Conroe- Demon Driven 252 B
7/13/2014 Jon Conroe- Brutal Asset 200 B
7/15/2014 Jon Conroe- Dual Nature 334 B+
7/16/2014 Jon Conroe- Fallen Stars 373 B+
7/18/2014 Jon Conroe- Executable 442 B-
7/19/2014 Jon Conroe- Forced Assent 387 C
7/26/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hounded 304 A
7/31/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hexed 307 A
8/7/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hammered 326 A
8/12/2014 Kevin Hearne- Tricked 370 B+
8/17/2014 Kevin Hearne- Trapped 322 A
8/25/2014 Kevin Hearne- Hunted 325 A
8/31/2014 Kevin Hearne- Shattered 353 A
9/14/2014 Richard Kadrey- Butcher Bird 256 B+
9/21/2014 Richard Kadrey- Devil in theDollhouse 100 B+
10/1/2014 Chuck Wendig- Under the Empyrean Sky 370 B+
10/15/2014 Chuck Wendig- Blightborn 528 B
10/21/2014 Larry Niven- The Draco Tavern 340 A
10/23/2014 Jim Butcher- Spiderman: Darkest Hours 399 B+
11/11/2014 Stephen King- The Stand 782 B
12/17/2014 Sandra Pollard- Puget Sound Whales for Sale 190 NA
12/22/2014 Robert Jackson Bennett- Mr. Shivers 374 B

On a more positive note, I’ve got some good items on the way here TBR. Corey’s Cibola Burn, Scalzi’s Lock In, William’s Happy Hour in Hell, Kadrey’s Kill City Blues and Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. So the beginning of 2015 is looking good. Here’s to hoping the rest of the year is better than this one was.

Under the Hood of a History Dissertation

title page

So this past week I finished it. As in, It. The dreaded dissertation. It’s been written, proofed, and approved by the dissertation advisor unit. The defense is set, and I can move onto other projects. As you can see, I’ve finally settled on a title, which I quite like: “Through a Glass, Darkly: The Eugenic Impulse on the Southern Plains, 1910-1960.” The first part of the title comes from a paper written by W.F. Hoyt, a Professor of Science at Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas, for the Kansas Academy of Science in 1907. The full excerpt goes like this:

“From repeated deception the scientist is learning extreme caution concerning alleged discoveries and revolutionary theories. There are many mysteries which science has never explained, and may never solve, but thanks to the patient investigator and the keen philosopher, there are some things we do know, even if seen as “through a glass darkly.” One of these is that if the established facts and principles of modern science are ever overthrown, it will be by the trained scientist with microscope, telescope and spectroscope, not by the ignoramus with the divining-rod.”

Hoyt was of course, as have so many others before and since, invoking an excerpt from the King James translation of First Corinthians to explicate the imperfect manner by which humanity experiences the world, both physically and metaphorically. It is one mediated by that which seems clear but is not, and necessitates an understanding that what appears on the other side is an imperfect simulacrum of any external real world independent of individual experience, if such a place exists. And I think it encapsulates the American eugenics movement perfectly.

So, the dissertation is done, and what’s a guy to do? Spend a little time with it in statistical form, of course! Sometimes those numbers, they can reveal characteristics of structure, style, and content that would otherwise go unnoticed. Plus, it gives a little closure that’s otherwise difficult to come by in a project of this size. So what, oh what, does a history dissertation look like under the hood?

VITAL STATISTICS: 260 pages, 89,338 words, 6 chapters, 528 footnotes, 141 secondary sources, 433 primary sources.

Let’s start with some word clouds (click to embiggen):

dissertation word cloudA word cloud of the 150 most common words among the total 70,836 words in the body of my dissertation

dissertation bibliography wordcloud

A word cloud of the 150 most common words among the 3,507 words in my Bibliography

dissertation primary source wordcloud

A word cloud of the 150 most common words among the titles of the primary sources used in my dissertation

Of interest to me are a few things. Sociology, psychology, biology, and genetics all show up in dissertation with more or less equal regularity (the first word cloud above); this makes perfect sense, as I intended to explore and answer questions about how eugenic ideas moved between disciplines and intellectual arenas with ease, taking on new forms as individuals deployed it in the course of their own academic pursuits. This was as much a project about the mental lives of individuals on the southern plains as it was a cultural and institutional history. And if you compare the three word clouds (my work, the secondary literature, and the primary sources I used), a number of important themes emerge: science, marriage, heredity, family, genetics, and nature.

Equally important, I think, are the collocations which do not take place among the three. For instance, you can see “racism” figures prominently in the secondary literature on the movement as a whole, but does not in either my dissertation or the primary source material. Certainly, I wouldn’t go so far as to say eugenics was never about race. But on the southern plains, its wasn’t a racist–or really racialist–project. Proponents on the southern plains saw dysgenic forces primarily in the individual, not the population. And when they spoke of “race degeneration,” mostly (though not always) they were persuaded by social concerns–divorce, increased poverty and state welfare costs, the proliferation of crime, etc.–and therapeutic ones (the right of children to be well-born, getting rid of the feebleminded, etc), not by the danger of non-whites to the human race. Much of the secondary literature has had something to say about eugenics as an undertaking concerned significantly, if not primarily, with race. In Oklahoma and Kansas, this was simply not the case for most.

 running word count

A running word count of every time I sat down and opened up my dissertation

Couple of interesting things here too:

  • It appears as if I wrote it in almost exactly ten months, starting January 20th and finishing on October 22nd. This is only mostly true. I had 4 conference papers that I’d presented at some point over the past two years, one of which was garbage but the other three of which made it largely unscathed into the final dissertation (and each folded into a different chapter). So anywhere from 30-36 pages of the writing was done.
  • As you can see, I sat down to work on it 85 times, which seems absurdly low. It feels like 850. You can see I took most of June off (I don’t remember this happening, really) and only opened it up to work 4 times in August (this I do remember, because we were moving ourselves, three cats, and all of our possessions from Rhode Island to Minnesota, and gents, that times some time).
  • You’ll see Chapters 1 and 4 are running up near thirty thousand words, or almost 80 pages, each. The others are more traditionally sized, at 30-40 pages each. There are people who will say any diss. chapter longer than fifteen thousand words is suffering from some kind of Tourette’s that just needs to be stopped by the advisor. Here’s what I say: your chapters are exactly as long as they need to be. In my case, eugenics on the southern plains constituted an intellectually, institutionally, and culturally cohesive movement during the period 1910-1930. So why break it up? Likewise, my final chapter treats five individuals in five different disciplines/arenas—art, psychology, zoology, sociology, and journalism. They offer a rich matrix of experience that connects like a dense web across the southern plains. Am I supposed to sever those connections artificially, only then to have to repeat prefatory material in a new chapter? Finally, 4 chapters means 4 introductions and 4 conclusions (one for each), on top of the initial dissertation introduction and final conclusion. I wasn’t about to write 2 more just to satisfy some unwritten rule. I have no idea how other people do it, but this felt organic.
  • It took me four months to write the final chapter (80 pages), then three months to write the first chapter (80 pages), a little less than a month to write chapter 2 (45 pages), then four days to write the final chapter (30 pages). Certainly the first chapter I wrote (chapter 4) was the slowest-going, and I gained steam throughout. But I also consciously did the hardest chapter first, and the easiest last. So while it seems as if the final chapter went super quick, in reality almost half of it was already written (it was the last conference paper I’d not yet worked in, it was shorter than the rest, and I’d been writing small bits along the way ), and, as I only needed to explore institutional numbers on sterilizations and scandal in the 1930s. A dissertation, I’ve discovered, is like a puzzle with a few thousand pieces where you’d only got a general description of the scene that’s supposed to unfold (“this puzzle depicts the development of an intellectual movement in Oklahoma and Kansas during a fifty-year period, and included some men and women doing science-y stuff. Ages 2-99.”). The edges are easy, and as you progress pieces fall into place. The end of the puzzle goes considerably quicker than the beginning. Plus, you know, deadline to defend this fall. I’m sure there was a little motivation there.
  • My best day was when I wrote the introduction. 13.2 pages in one day, and I can attest that was 9a-530p, with about forty minutes for lunch. I barely remember it, in fact, it seemed to go so quickly. I seemed to sit down at my computer and then all of a sudden it was 5p. My worst day was April 20th, when I managed to squeeze out less than 300 words. But here’s a secret about taking on a writing project of this length you never really understand until you do it: at the end of the day, especially when you’re cranking out a few thousand words of writing, you feel emptied of words. Just a void bereft of any and all semiosis. Spend eight or ten hours writing, then try to have a conversation with anyone. You’ve got this internal monologue going on as you write, but then it keeps going when you stop writing. So once in awhile I’d be talking to my wife at dinner or on a run or whatever, in the middle of a sentence that I was re-writing in my mind as I was saying it out loud, and then I’d just say to myself “Screw it. This is redonkulous,” and  have to shut my mouth for awhile.

comic2-2564

Writing is hard. Dinosaur Comics recognizes this.

On sources and footnotes:

  • First-time citations of secondary sources—i.e. how many sources in each chapter were ones which were showing up for the first time:
    • Introduction: 36
    • Chapter 1: 51
    • Chapter 2: 15
    • Chapter 3: 12
    • Chapter 4: 16
    • Conclusion: 11
    • Total: 141

Clearly, this thing was front-loaded to a degree, though that makes some sense. Fully a fourth of the sources were first dealt with in the introduction as I set the scope and bounds and contributions of my dissertation compared to the rest of the literature. For a lot of those sources, this was the only time they were mentioned. More than a third of the rest came in the first behemoth chapter, as I approached in some detail the initial themes and trends and characteristics that would describe eugenics on the southern plains during the first third of the twentieth century, comparing and contrasting it to the bulk of the literature which also spends its time in the 1910s and 1920s. The remaining chapters saw pretty consistently a dozen or so new sources as I shifted focus from discipline to discipline and into the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I’m a little surprised Chapter 3 saw 12 new sources, as that was solely about sterilizations on the southern plains 1930-1940.

The nice thing about the secondary literature on the history of eugenics is it’s completely doable—there are only a couple of hundred books on the subject that are worth reading, unlike, say, the Old South or Colonial America. I can say with confidence I’ve read the vast majority of them, perused most of the rest, and probably missed a few along the way.

About 17% of my word count lived in the footnotes, or fifteen thousand or so words. I never would have guessed it was this much. I do tend to like to use the footnote as a space for conducting something of a parallel conversation with the reader when the material calls for it. I like to imagine that one could, in fact, get a semi-decent sense of the project’s argument and place in the literature by just reading the footnotes.

citogenesis

xkcd: citogenesis

Concluding Thoughts:

I have no idea how well this describes the average history dissertation. The minimum my graduate program requires is 200 pages, including bibliography, but from my limited informal experience probably a quarter of my peers ran over. I offer no conclusions based on this evidence. I just like simple numbers like these, and it gives me a satisfactory feeling of closure to run through them. I also learned a few things along the way.

slowlorisblog Goes Big League, Other News, and Then Finally Some Writing

scienceblog logo

Two items of note today before we jump into things.

First, some exciting news. I’ve joined the team over at ScienceBlog, which is, if you’re unfamiliar, a compendium of (sometimes) acerbic and (always) insightful scientists, researchers, professors, postdoctoral fellows, and science journalists bringing more (good) science writing to the public. I first encountered them through Nathanial Comfort’s excellent Genotopia a few years ago. I’m honored to join them. My digital scribblings will find a home over there will be at slowloris.scienceblog.com. The walls and the ceiling are up, it’s mostly painted, and I’ve said hello. Subscribe if you’re of a mind, and feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.

Do not fret, however, because I will remain active here as well! ScienceBlogs focuses more on timely issues and in addition has a readership with a little thicker glasses. So while I will be posting there once a month, with those essays focusing on current items of interest in the history of science, technology, and medicine, here I will continue to write about the same stuff as always. From here out, just think of the slowlorisblog as having a split personality, only the chiseled-jawed academic persona here will be aware of about the even more chiseled-jawed, and also mustachioed, self-effacing purveyor of recondite facts over there.

Second, starting August 1st posts are going to slow down for a bit. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the dissertation tunnel, so from here until the end of September I’m going to scale back here and ramp up there. Expect just a few posts between now and then, as my schedule and sleep levels allow, as opposed to once a week. I will still be updating the READ ME and Neat History pages regularly, so go there for your fix if you can’t find anyone else to play with. Don’t cry. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.

It’s going to be an exciting second half of 2014. So let’s get on with it, already.

 Indian and European Land Use in Colonial and Pre-Colonial America

landscape

I’ve always been fascinated by environmental histories. Something about demoting humanity from its traditional place (in our discourse and all too often, histories) in the order of things and just treating it as another force for change on the landscape is liberating and, in my experience, makes for an excellent read.

Today I’d like to visit pre-colonial and newly-colonial New England and talk a bit about what happened to the land—in all its interconnected glory—when Western Europeans arrived, what it looked like before, and what that means for the way the larger narrative (economic, cultural, and agentive) gets taught in our high schools and survey courses. Understanding local ecosystems and the larger environment of New England from a pre-colonial standpoint and tracing the transformations that occurred during the prolonged and staggered arrival of various Europeans peoples on the shores of North America provides, for those of us living today, remarkable insight into not only how Europeans and Indians defined their respective relationships with the land, but allows for a more nuanced awareness of their interactions with each other. In the case of the former, the relationship Europeans had with the land—their characterizations of it in written texts, conceptualizations and abstractions of its meaning, and their uses of it in everyday activities—and subsequently the changes that occured after their arrival can be attributed largely, though not solely, to a capitalist mindset. This probably takes you by surprise not at all. Yet Indians too had a dynamic relationship with the ecology of their world, and it would be a mistake to describe their own activities, despite what the popular media and high-school history has taught us—as harmonious with the land without acknowledging that they were active agents in its transformation for their benefit.

How do we learn about European encounters with the land, and how they fit it into their particularized worldview? Primary sources! Of course, any consideration of the primary texts in which Europeans described New England must bear in mind three things: first, that they viewed, and thus described, the New World in terms of commodities—emphasizing exportable, fungible, saleable goods, and in effect telling the reader at least as much about where they came from as where they currently were. For example, the shortage of wood back home and other immediately and recognizably marketable goods like sassafras led chroniclers to focus more on those resources than other aspects of the land. And though “permanent” settlers were less likely than merchants to write of the countryside as a catalog of commodities, all, to some extent or another, engaged in organizing the land according to the use they had, or imagined, for it.

Secondly, any text describing New England was inherently disingenuous—even if unintentionally—in two ways. In describing the bounty they encounter, explorers, settlers, and boosters by and large never failed to inflate the degree of abundance. Aided by the likes of Richard Halkuyt and others back home who saw the New World as a great opportunity for the English, diaries and journals often contained gross exaggerations and outright lies. In addition to this, such writings also failed to mark—even when what they were saying was faithful to their experience—that the bounty they “saw” may not necessarily always be there. This led new settlers to the region to expect, as an example, that bushes would be heavy with strawberries year-round, leading first generations of settlers to neglect to lay in a proper store of food for the winter simply because they expected to, like they supposed the Indians did, survive by gathering whatever they needed. Of such notions they were quickly disabused.

Lest we talk only about white settlers, it’s important to note that the latter fact also requires clarification. Northern and southern Indians had (sometimes vastly) different relationships with their respective ecosystems, and neither can be characterized as having had no impact on the land. In the north, low population densities allowed for a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence and led to a stable relationship governed by the life cycles of a natural food supply. Indian tribes moved from place to place in accordance with what was plentiful at that time—crabs, clams, and fish on the coast, alewives and other fish at certain places on the rivers during spawning time, nuts and berries in the spring and summer, and pigeon, turkey, and meat of the four-legged variety during the winter, when the latter was easiest to track. The relationship the southern tribes had with the land was more complicated, because added to the hunting-gathering cycles were planting cycles, which allowed for higher populations but also concentrated calorie base and more intensely affected the land.

Lastly, and this is the one that will find most readers exposed to the common narrative a little uncomfortable, is that it would be a huge mistake to conclude that pre-contact Indians lived in perfect harmony with the land, leaving no trace behind them. Certainly the northern tribes had less of an impact on the ecology of their environment than the southern, agrarian tribes did. But the latter made extensive use of burning, removing individual trees by setting a small fire at their base to strip away its bark, and starting wide-ranging burns to clear fields for planting or drive game during hunts. What resulted was what environmental historian William Cronon calls, eloquently, a “mosaic . . . of New England ecosystems, [with] forests in many different states of ecological succession.”[1]

What, then, can we say about the differences between arriving colonists and the Indian tribes they encountered? Perhaps the most important cultural conception that differentiated the Indians of New England from the European colonists arriving on its shores—and the one that in turn influenced how each interacted with the ecosystems they inhabited—was their respective concepts of what it meant to “bound the land.”[2] This goes far beyond the reductivist notion that Indians didn’t believe you could own land, while Europeans did. Rather, it was—for both—predicated in complex social institutions, cultural norms, and legal precedent.

Let’s look, for example, at the tribes of northern New England that subsisted by moving to specific locations at certain times of the year. While the arriving colonists saw land as a parcel with finite boundaries and an inherent transferable (almost fungible) nature, Indians emphatically did not. What resulted was confusion when colonists engaged in activities they thought, in some cases very commonsensically, were seen by all as “buying” the land. While it appeared to the Europeans that a sachem or group of sachems agreed to exchange the land itself for whatever goods were being offered, to the Indians’ point of view the land as a concrete, reified notion of ownership was a mostly foreign concept, not a part of their cultural lens.

In such exchanges they were trading only the rights to specific uses of the land during certain times of the year—such as the fishing or gathering they engaged in alternating seasons. This is called “usufruct” rights. Not, as the colonists thought, to own with vertical infinitude any landscape bounded by the terms of the agreement. Trouble resulted when tribes or sachems traded the same rights on one piece of land to different groups of Europeans—an act practiced with regularity amongst themselves and one with which they did not imagine the colonists would have a problem. For the colonists it was a completely different matter. Merely one among the myriad examples of how this different mindset operated for the Europeans was the granting to Massachusetts Bay Colony.

As more Europeans settled in New England populated areas became more crowded, and colonists spread outward onto land Indians had abandoned (because they could no longer practice the subsistence hunting and gathering or farming they had before) and forced disease-thinned tribes to move farther inland. What resulted over the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries was a series of changes that brought about radical changes to the land on which both the colonists and Indian tribes hunted, built, worked and played, and loved, laughed, lived, and died over the next century.

Excellent environmental histories of colonial America abound. Easily among the best is William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, from which I pull liberally here. It’s short, well-written, and incisive. But you can also check out Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature (which I reviewed not too long ago here) or J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, both of which are also excellent.

[1] Cronin, 51.

[2] Cronin, 54.

*image by jjpeabody over at deviantart:

The Case for Elv and Unqua: Why We Should be Counting in Dozens

dozenal header

Welcome to PART 3 of our ongoing series here at the slowlorisblog, 42 STEPS TO A BETTER WORLD. That time, it sure is flying. To think we’re already 1/14th done! At this rate, we’re looking at a finish date of 2019, and that’s way ahead of schedule. Today, we offer a radical proposal (accompanied by perhaps as many links as we’ve ever had in a single post): that we’ve been counting in a count(ha)er-productive way for millennia, and to offer an alternative way to do it and make the whole world a better place.

Here’s how most of us count:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Here’s how dozenalists (also called duodecimalists) propose we should be counting. It is also the official sponsored counting system of the slowlorisblog from here onward:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, X, E, 10

(many dozenalists represent the X as an upside down 2, and the E as a backwards 3)

Both the Dozenal Societies of America and Great Britain propose that we should be counting not in base-10, but in base-12. Phonetically, they’d sound like this:

one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, elv, unqua

(It is, in my opinion, a massive failing of the movement that most of them insist on forcing us to replace, conceptually, the Roman number 10 in their number line with a set of numbers that is in fact “12-large,” while phonetically retaining “ten” for the numeral X. Others have suggested calling the numeral X do. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that one of the largest obstacles to adoption is going to be pronunciation. Especially when it comes to large numbers.[1] But if we can put this problem aside for just a moment, we’ll see many potential benefits).

Historically, the way we count is more or less based on the number of fingers and toes we have. Other societies have counted differently: the Babylonians counted in base-60, the Mayans in base-20, the people of Papua New Guinea are said to count in base-6, the Umbu-Ungu in base-24, and various positional and other computational systems favor base-36. So counting in tens isn’t some kind of incarnation of Natural Law. It just happened, and we stuck with it.

Proposing any kind of change like this is sure to ruffle some feathers. It would cost a good deal to do, in addition to annoying parents who thought they knew how to count, Especially when little Umlaut comes home asking why mommy didn’t teach her about the number elv.

There are really two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, cases to be made here: that switching to the dozenal system would be a beneficent move in terms of everyday convenience, and that it provides mathematical benefits with larger impacts in that field of praxis. The former of these is the easier one to make, but it’s also much less convincing to the average reader. Convincing one generation to re-learn how to count so as to (mostly) benefit the succeeding ones rarely works. This phenomena affects not only knowledge systems, but technology. Look at the arguments to be made for switching to the Dvorak (or other alternative) typing systems. The latter of these, the mathematical benefits, are murkier, but still titillating. Let’s dive in!

Mathematical benefits

  1. Fractional representation: Fractions, in total number, digit-length, and common-use ones are, I think, inarguably simplified when it comes to dozenal math. Compare them for yourself below. The big takeaway for me is that 1/3 stops being a mess, and most of the other common fractions go from two or three digits to one. The only real backward step is that 1/5 goes from .2 to 0.24972497 (recurring).
FRACTION DOZENAL DECIMAL
1/2 0.6 .5
1/3 0.4 .333 (repeating)
1/4 0.3 .25
1/5 0.24 (repeating) .2
1/6 0.2 .1666 (repeating)
1/7 0.1714285 (repeating) .142857 (repeating)
1/8 0.15 .125
1/9 0.1333 (repeating) .111 (repeating)
  1. Recurring digits: In the real world, problems with factors of 5 come up far less than problems with factors of 3, and the the dozenal system brings with it a host of inherent properties making it superior to the decimal system.[2] That means recurring digits (and the rounding inexactitude they often require) come up less often. Nevertheless, the real benefit that in the dozenal system when recurring digits do come up, they tend to be much shorter than in the decimal system. This is because 12 sits in the middle of two prime numbers (11, 13) rather than, as 10 does, next to a composite number (9).[3] It also is the result of their respective factorizations (the process of breaking numbers down into all the small numbers which, when multiplied together, get you to the large number), where dozenal offers further benefits. The prime number 2 shows up twice in the factorization of 12 (as opposed to once in 10), and the prime number 3 shows up once instead of not at all. Basically, more primes = good, less = bad.[4]
  2. Superior highly composite numbers are those which have a greater number of divisors relative to the number itself. 12 is one of these. 10 isn’t even a highly composite number (those positive numbers with more divisors than every smaller positive number). This means the math, including but not limited to the two cases above, gets cleaner all the way around.

Everyday benefits

Basically, it makes counting better all the way around, in terms of weights (pharmacists and jewelers use a 12-ounce pound), measures (a circle has 12 divisions of 30 degrees, there are 2 sets of 12 hours in a day, 12 months in a year, 12 inches in a foot for carpenters) or money (the British pound system, but also American financial markets as they are based around a 12-month year). There are a host of others, that if you are curious about you can check out at the American Dozenal Society Education Resources Page[5]

Thus, for children, it makes math easier to conceptualize and understand. For those of us raised on the decimal system, we can just use a calculator.

What a Dozenal World Would Look Like

dozenalclock

counting

ruler

Dozenal_multiplication_table

Fans can join the movement and its (only semi-facetious) legislative proposal, the Dozenal Establishment Act.

Further Reading

Interview with Dozenal Society of American Don Goodman

The Dozenal Society of America

The Dozenal Society of Great Britain

A nice video introduction to base-12

Some other stuff

[1] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b20a_0.pdf

[2] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db27309_0.pdf

[3] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b109_0.pdf

[4] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b211_0.pdf

[5] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/leech_thomas_dozens_tens.pdf

Exorcising the Demons of our Past: Why Eugenics Wasn’t What You Think It Was, and Why That Matters

Science of human perfection

BOOK REVIEW: Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

With for-profit companies offering genetic testing at prices approaching the commercially viable for the first time since the sequencing of the human genome ($1,000), eugenics as a topic of discussion in academic circles and in the popular news cycle alike will increase dramatically in frequency over the course of the next decade. In fact, it will likely be one of the conversational signposts of the twenty first century.  Designer babies, three-parent children, genomic medical therapeutics, and the stubborn persistence of racism and poor arguments disguised as science, like an eye booger clinging crustily on and just generally being a pain in the ass for everyone.

What was eugenics? For those unfamiliar, eugenics was a wildly popular scientific, cultural, social, and political movement in America (most popular) during the first half of the twentieth century. Spurred by advances in genetics after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s famous work with pea plants in 1900, it developed simultaneously to medical genetics (i.e. using knowledge about genes to improve medical care). Both stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century (though most histories of medical genetics really begin in the 1950s).

So eugenics developed alongside humanity’s first stumbling investigations about what, how, and why traits get passed along from generation to generation. Eye color, physical build, demeanor, mental ability, susceptibility to disease—these are the types of qualities a new breed of scientists called geneticists initially sought out in the base material responsible for the direction taken by human evolution. Naturally, many quickly (and early on) suggested that now that humanity had access to the “germ plasm” (as they called DNA, which wouldn’t be discovered until the 1920s) we could take a conscious hand in directing the future of human evolution.

What does this have to do with Nathaniel Comfort’s Science of Human Perfection? Everything! This book is an attempt by Comfort, an historian of genetics and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, to do two things: 1) recover the thread of “medical genetics” from the history of eugenics, and 2) Demonstrate how the larger eugenics movement, reviled in the popular mind as the twisted progeny of the Nazis unleashed upon Europe’s non-Aryan ethnicities, was in fact a far more complex phenomena that, at its heart, was about “human improvement and the relief of suffering” (x). Now “human improvement” sounds an awful lot like the superman programs of the Third Reich, but, as Comfort shows clearly, the larger aim of the movement saw “improvement” as eliminating disease, inherited disorders, as well as increased intelligence and a stronger constitution.

Comfort traces this thread of medical genetics as it gradually thickened from 1910-1930. He notes the abandonment of most geneticists of eugenics by the 1930s as two obstacles appeared: first, the complexity of designing reliable experiments that could account for the complicated milieu going on inside the “germ plasm” as it was affected by environment (this is the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy), and second, the ethical boundaries to carrying out those experiments on human beings. Instead, scientists like Michael F. Guyer at places like the University of Wisconsin occupied themselves with mice, fruit flies, and corn.

During this process, Comfort introduces another welcome formulation of distinguishing the strands of eugenic thought: Galtonian vs. Garrodian. The former settles its gaze on the population, whilst the latter emphasizes the individual. This opens up a whole new framework for understanding American eugenics that moves beyond the positive-negative dichotomy and adds nuance without sacrificing the accomplishments of previous scholarship.

Comfort follows the narrative into the 1950s and the advent of heredity clinics (which we still have today in the form of marriage counseling as it pertains to heredity), and shows how geneticists, with the onset of the Cold War and worries about the effects of radiation on the human genome, and also now bolstered by a quarter century of advances in knowledge and technique, re-approached medical genetics in the 1950s. There, The Science of Human Perfection ends.

This is a monograph that is, importantly, thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. Despite seeing increasing popularity in the scholarship during the last twenty years or so, eugenics still remains something of the bastard stepchild of history of science in academia. To blame this trend solely on the uncomfortableness the subject tends to engender (being tied so closely with the (bio-)political) seems to come, at least in part, from a public that wishes to forget the United States ever had an active movement for forced sterilization  and a larger history of science community of scholars who have gone along with that. At the same time, this is something of a copout and a cliché all at once. American eugenics was not Nazi eugenics: in intellectual grounding, structure (both in terms of the individuals proponents and organization), praxis, or even mostly time. And the threads of American eugenics, as we can see in Comfort’s excellent treatment (and elsewhere), certainly didn’t die with Hitler in that underground bunker in April of 1945. Comfort, thankfully, elaborates with nuance and persuasiveness on both realities.

Even more welcome by those of us in the history of science who are too used to slogging through interminably boring prose, is that The Science of Human Perfection is incredibly well-written.Comfort has a wonderful way with words, and an ability to render primary sources into a compelling narrative. It is, aside from being one of the more important revisions of the historical literature on eugenics, one of the best-written studies in any sub-discipline of history I have had the pleasure of reading.

For anyone interested, Comfort runs the excellent Genotopia over at scienceblogs.

Book Review- Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature

It’s a strange day when a book arrives in your mailbox to review and on the back are laudatory quotations from scholarly giants William Cronon and Richard White. Snagging one of these guys is the equivalent to scoring over a million points in Donkey Kong. Getting both is like achieving the latter upside down. It just doesn’t happen.

So I was excited to crack open Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature and see what it had to offer. I’m technically not an environmental historian, but alot of the stuff I get to read and write about intersects with notions about the natural and landscape. But this book has it’s own website. Which is kind of a Big Deal.

The short version of this review is Fiege nails it. Absolutely nails it. For the long version, read onward, oh denizens of the internet.

The best examples of historical scholarship usually do one of two things: either they open up, in dramatic fashion, new areas of exploration via methodological tools or theoretical frameworks, or they cut across the bounds of time and the scores of texts which the history profession produces to synthesize scholarship and show that what we thought was many was actually one. Mark Fiege accomplishes the latter of these in The Republic of Nature.

This is, as the author acknowledges from the outset, something of a peculiar book. It does not propose to be a radical or alternate history, refuting the claims of previous surveys of American history. And yet the narrative it weaves uncovers a tapestry of experiences and interconnections that will be striking and new to most. Indeed, it is not a comprehensive survey at all, but instead chooses nine moments of experience in American life, from the Salem witch trials, to the American Revolution, King Cotton, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, the transcontinental railroad, the Manhattan project, Brown v. Board of Education, and the oil crisis of 1973-4, to excavate the place of environment and relocate it from the borders of American history to its center.

Chapters 3 (King Cotton), 5 (Gettysburg), 7 (the Manhattan Project), and 8 (Brown v. Board) are the strongest of the book. Of these, I was most pleasantly surprised by the latter two. Throughout, Fiege marshals an impressive understanding of the secondary literature, supplemented by select primary sources, to delve into the rhizomatic. Collectively, these chapters demonstrate best what seems obvious by the end of the study: that American history is environmental history. The individual human experience remains ineluctably rooted in the demographic, the topographical, the geological, the biological, and the ecological. The cycles that govern nature equally govern human lives—work and play, love and hate, life and death. The forces that shape, equally, the countryside and the city, also influence profoundly human industry, politics, conflict, interaction, and scientific and technological inquiry. Fortunes wax and wane interchangeably according to the degree with which the natural is transported, transformed, and traversed.

To single the above out is not to suggest the rest of the text falls short. Indeed, there are moments in the chapters below that will, even to seasoned scholars, offer novel interpretations useful in constructing with more fidelity the penumbra of experience in American life. Chapter 2 (By the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God) remains the weakest, locating republican fervor in the shift from divine law to natural law and presenting the opportunity for revolution at the same time it portended trouble down the road for slavery. Fiege’s analytical framework seems the most stretched here, and has trouble accounting for the totality of experience with little information presented that does not already exist elsewhere. Chapter 4 (Nature’s Nobleman) is somewhat less thin, locating the inception and maturation of Lincoln’s particular antislavery ideology in his formative experiences as a child and young man working the land and coming up against the harsh realities of free market labor. In places, it struggles to connect this experience with the political expediencies of war and the decisions that they necessitated. Other chapters, like the first (Satan in the Land), do not suffer from analytical flaws but rather see somewhat more compelling treatment elsewhere (in this case David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder (1989)).

That this review enumerates these fuzzier moments in The Republic of Nature should emphatically not to suggest to potential readers that Fiege’s narrative is one worth passing over. Indeed the opposite—the above moments merely shine slightly less in a study that is as a whole a stunning and beautifully treated reconceptualization of the those moments in American history which survey courses have taught us to dread.