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Khan Academy’s crowdfunding campaign in US Government and Politics

This July, Khan Academy is raising funds to support the creation of US Government and Politics content.

Support us on IndieGogo!


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Lincoln exhibit

Photos from the Lincoln in Our Time exhibition opening, March 2, 2015.

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by | May 13, 2015 · 10:08 pm

Art and Literature in the Galleries – Sunday, Oct. 26, 2:00-3:30 pm

eightgirlstakingpicturesHi friends!  Please consider this your invitation to join me for a spooky little October book club, sponsored by the Ackland Art Museum!  I was a curatorial intern there from 2011-2012 and loved every minute of it.  This fall, the Ackland is exhibiting selections from their truly remarkable collection of photography in a show called PhotoVision.  In conjunction with the show, I will be leading a discussion of the book Eight Girls Taking Pictures, by Whitney Otto, which intersects with the photography on views in interesting ways.  In addition, the Ackland’s Head Curator, Peter Nisbet, will start us off with a mini-lecture about the exhibit.

Not only does PhotoVision include some of the most stunning works from the Ackland’s photography collection, it also showcases their newly-acquired carte-de-visite of Mrs. William Mumler, Clairvoyant Physician.  This spirit photograph was produced by none other than William Mumler himself, who “discovered” spirit photography in 1862, near the height of the craze for seances in the mid-nineteenth century.  Mumler is a leading character in my own research, as he took a spirit photograph of Abraham Lincoln around 1872.  His life and career also makes for very fun reading.  In 1869, the state of New York tried Mumler for fraud, with Elbridge Gerry as the prosecuting attorney and P.T. Barnum as an expert witness on hoaxes.  Try as they might, the prosecution could not prove that Mumler’s process was counterfeit, so he got away with it.  For more on Mumler, I highly recommend Louis Kaplan’s book The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer.

If you’d like to join our free book discussion on Sunday, October 26, 2:00-3:30, please be sure to register here.

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Race and College ROI

Today, Slate’s economic correspondent Jordan Weissman posted an article based on the annual ranking of colleges by their return on investment.  Instead of lauding the colleges that landed at the top of the list–mostly prestigious technical schools like MIT–Weissman took it upon himself to identify those schools that will leave their graduates poorest.  The ten worst ROI schools included:

For Weissman, the real take-away message about these schools is that, in his words, they “reinforce why we so desperately need high-quality consumer information about higher education,” noting that the higher education lobby has repeatedly blocked the Department of Education from tracking graduates’ careers to quantify their earning power.

To be fair, I don’t disagree with Weissman when it comes to that point.  I think schools work very hard to distract prospective students from the realities of the cold hard cash they’re going to spend on their education by promoting the myth of “fit” — the notion that when high school seniors visit a campus they will have some kind of magical gut feeling that the school is right for them, a kind of institutional love-at-first-sight.  Who cares if you’re getting a degree in English lit from a university that costs $60,000 per year when you’ll be lucky to nab a starting salary of $36,000 as a high school teacher?  It was just the right fit for you!

As I perused the list of collegiate offenders, however, I couldn’t help but notice that the four worst ROI schools are HBCUs.  Weissman omits this crucial bit of information from his analysis–either because he didn’t recognize the schools as HBCUs or because he thought it was irrelevant to his larger point.  But adding race into the mix of college ROI makes for a much more complicated lesson about higher education and earnings than just ‘students need to know what they’re getting themselves into.’

For one thing, that HBCU graduates in particular are making less over the course of their lives suggests not that the colleges themselves are bad investments but that African Americans continue to suffer from reduced earning power, which cannot contend with rising college costs.  According to this 2012 report from the NAACP African American men earn 72% of what white men earn, and African American women earn 85% of what white women earn (which is, of course, about 80% of what white men make).  While African Americans continue to deal with a lifetime disparity in earnings, their ratio of college debt to income is certainly going to be worse than white students’.  Chalking that ratio up to a ‘bad investment’ is not telling the whole story, to put it mildly.

A second factor to consider is how the ever-privatizing climate of higher education is taking its toll on HBCUs.  Rob Schofield over at NC Policy Watch recently noted that North Carolina Republican governor Pat McCrory, unrelenting in his quest to erase decades’ worth of legislation that made North Carolina arguably the most progressive state in the South, has introduced massive cuts to higher education that have had particularly harsh consequences for HBCUs (while, ironically, serving as the State Honorary Chair of the United Negro College Fund).  When state governments slash funding for higher education, reducing scholarships, financial aid, and the money that pays professors and keeps the lights on, already critically underfunded HBCUs suffer even more.  Their only recourse is to raise tuition, further inflating that debt-to-income ratio for students.

My larger point here is that when we talk about higher education and earning power, we can’t just pass along the blame to students for choosing universities whose tuition exceeds their future earning power.  The problem is not just that some schools are bad investments and students need access to better information about them.  The problem is that the current trend of massive public disinvestment in higher education only serves to further entrench inequalities of race, class, and gender — and that’s a bad investment in our nation’s future.

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Happy (Days Are Here Again)

Pharrell Williams

Pharrell and his hat

If you are alive, you probably have heard Pharrell’s hit Happy by now.  It’s currently at number one on the Billboard charts and starting to reach something like supercut critical mass.  Today, as part of “International Happiness Day” (didn’t know that was a thing!) Pharrell has partnered with the United Nations Foundation to produce a 24-hour long music video featuring people dancing to the song in every time zone to raise money for relief efforts.

I first heard the song, along with the mythology of Pharrell’s sweet hats (please, please, please let him have appropriated one from the Mounties), a few months ago. I even read an article on Slate arguing that Happy was this decade’s answer to Hey Ya (or, in other words, a rap-style song that white people like enough to catapult it to the top of the charts). But it wasn’t until yesterday morning that I began to realize that it was a full-blown cultural trend.   I was idly checking my Facebook feed from my iPhone, not yet ready to get out of bed, when I discovered the viral video of this Detroit children’s choir singing the anti-blues in the form of Happy.  They cheered me up so much that I wanted to listen to the original.  It cheered me up so much that I listened to it again.  And one more time, while brushing my teeth and getting ready for the day.

Cheering me up has not been an easy task lately.  I’ve got the recession blues, endlessly worrying about when and whether I’m going to get a job after my current contract expires.  Happy made me . . . well, you know.  It seemed like a minor miracle.  As I drove to work, I thought about the power of song in dark economic times.  This week, in my U.S. after 1865 class, we’re talking about the Great Depression and the New Deal, and one subject we discussed was FDR’s mastery of the PR machine through clever use of contemporary media.  He was particularly adept at harnessing the power of radio, knowing that every family had a radio after the consumer revolution of the 1920s.  During his presidency, he spoke directly to the public in his legendary “fireside chats,” radio programs designed to make Americans feel as though he was having a friendly conversation with them in their living rooms.

But before he was president, his campaign song was the irrepressible ditty Happy Days Are Here Againsuggesting that when Roosevelt took office the woes of the Depression would be swept away.  Quick-paced and chirpy, it’s music designed for dancing.  Several of its lyrics, such as “The skies above are clear again,” are echoed in Pharrell’s song of happiness, which asserts that “sunshine, she’s here, you can take a break.”  Pharrell’s “can’t nothing bring me down” is not far removed from Happy Days’ “your cares and troubles are gone, there’ll be no more from now on.”  The more I look at their similarities, the more I think that Happy is not so much the response to Hey Ya a decade later but rather the Great Recession’s musical answer, more than eighty years later, to the Great Depression’s most memorable song.  (“You Are My Sunshine” is another candidate, in the same vein.)

Whether or not that’s the case, my own personal response to Happy has certainly informed how I think about songs and fads in history.  It’s hard, with distance, not to look back on people  in the past goin’ apey over a song or movie as more naive than our cynical selves, ‘buying in’ to whatever fad of the day with far more enthusiasm than we could muster today.  Because really, how much much could a song really affect you?  Well, a song got me out of bed yesterday, and it did again today.  In the midst of depression, a song made me dance.  That’s a powerful thing indeed.

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I hatch an evil plot

Tonight, in the shower, I was thinking about tests.  Yep.  If I ever try to tell you that I’m not a huge nerd, remind me of the time I was in the shower thinking about the best way to do assessments in history classes.

This train of thought may have been influenced by this article, about a UCLA professor who used an enviably clever strategy in his behavioral ecology exam, making the test itself a learning experience by giving students the option to work together using all of their resources or to go it on their own . . . thus replicating many of the principles in behavioral ecology.  It’s like the Stanford Prison Experiment without the horrible psychological consequences.

It’s also a consequence of having hosted a review session for my students last night.  They have an essay on their final exam (which is tomorrow), and as the logistics of the class have worked out so far, they haven’t yet had to make an argument of this magnitude. I took them through the process of selecting evidence related to the prompt, then asked them to summarize some of the themes that arose from them.  Then, I asked them to come up with a possible thesis statement.

They were stumped.  That, or they were waiting for me just to tell them the answer, which is unusual because this group is pretty talkative and I waited for a brave student to speak for a long time.  (One of my student evaluations in the past said that I “should be quicker to answer my own questions,” because the long silences can get awkward, but it always takes me a long time to gather my thoughts into coherent form, so I try to give them space to do likewise).  I ended up giving them some examples of theses that would encapsulate the trends of the evidence.  And they typed them diligently into their notes.  And I started to think about how much our digital culture — and at times, our university culture — encourages them to be passive recipients of other peoples’ ideas and knowledge.  And then I started thinking about how to change that.

And then I hatched an evil plot.  Tonight, I remembered my AP history courses from high school, and their DBQ component — document-based questions.  Basically, the exam would consist of five or so very short primary documents of various types (diary entries, maps, art, maybe some good old fashioned census data or something) and a question related to them.  You then would have to use the documents to make an argument.

I’m wondering if it would be possible to do such a thing in a 100-level history exam.  Instead of asking students to memorize various keywords, could you have them come in to the classroom with blue books, give them a couple of sheets with excerpts from primary documents, and tell them to answer an essay question using their knowledge from lectures and the documents?  Or would that be an absolute circus?

I seem to recall being the only person who liked DBQs in high school, so I imagine if I did something like this I would instantly become the least popular professor in the world.  On the upside, exams would not require any memorization.

What other assessment techniques can we use that encourage students to use their brains and think critically during the exam itself?



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The best and worst of working in archives

One of the inevitable facets of life as a historian is that at some point, you’re going to end up  spending a lot of time in an archive.  On one hand, this is awesome.  This is the closest to being Indiana Jones that most of us will get, and part of me is always convinced that I’m going to open some folder and discover a lost manuscript tucked between the pages of a musty book, or maybe, if I’m really lucky, a treasure map.  This never actually happens, and I suspect it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with the reality of working in archives, which is often painfully boring, freezing cold, allergy-aggravating, and personally constraining.

But every archive is a little different, and some of them are amazing places to work, staffed by amazing people.  Which archives are the best places to do research?  Here are some of my favorites:


The Margaret Herrick Library

1.  The Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  First, it’s in a beautiful building in downtown L.A. (which means parking is expensive, but I parked at a nearby tennis club).  The cool marble and high ceilings of this place could not be farther from the drafty basement archives I’ve worked in.  Second, the collections here are awesome.  Do you want to read the original letters of famous actors and directors?  Read the original scripts of movies before they were in the form you’ve come to know on the big screen?  See the press kits that the film companies sent out to journalists to promote movies?  This is the place.  Lastly, the staff here is hip and friendly–which makes all the difference to a researcher.

2.  The Special Collections Library at the University of Chicago.  

The Robie House

The Robie House

I enjoyed my walk from the bus stop to this library in Hyde Park every day, since it passed through a gorgeous neighborhood of arts-and-crafts style brownstones, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.  But the best part of the Special Collections Library is its call system, which is entirely digitized.  You go on their website, browse the collections guide, and order the boxes you want to examine with one click.  It is brilliance.  Their reading room is bright and pleasant, and their staff is amazing.  Amazing-amazing.  They became really interested in my research during the weeks I was there, and went out of their way to find me new things related to my project, including a 1950s comic book which is basically all about a bare-chested Lincoln fighting foes.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

3. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.  This is a very small library compared to the other two, but I’m including it because of its personal feel.  Not only did the head curator/librarian work with me personally every day I was there, the staff took an interest in me as a young person living by myself in a strange town and invited me to visit the farmer’s market with them during lunch, brought me candy and baked goods, and even gave me a Girl Scout badge for my trek from downtown Springfield to Lincoln’s tomb and back.  Plus they have everything you would ever want related to Abraham Lincoln, including the myriad “relics” that people have saved over the years.

Now, for some gripes.  I’m not going to name any names, here, because the archivists have the documents and I need the documents and therefore I do not wish to anger the archivists.  But here are some of the things I hate when I work in the archives:

1.  Having to sign in and out and take all of my stuff with me and make a huge production of it every time I have to get up to go to the bathroom.  Researchers are not camels; we can’t hold it for eight straight hours.

2. Being treated like a dumb kid whose research on her dissertation is way less important than Fred Q. Muddlypants’s fascinating genealogical study of his great-aunt Irene the metermaid.  I’m 29, not 6.  I’m not about to smear peanut butter and jelly on the documents.

3. On  similar note, being watched like a hawk for every second I am in the archive and immediately reproved should I do something terrible, like letting my flip-flop stop making full contact with my foot for one second (“SHOES MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES!” Dude, they’re still on.  They’re flip-flops.  They sometimes flop away from your heel).

4. Having to pay exorbitant amounts for copies.  Luckily, being able to bring a camera into the archives helps defray this cost, mostly, but it seems like highway robbery when an archive wants a dollar or more for a single page.

5.  Not being able to have a camera when there’s no possibility of copyright infringement.  I can see some places not wanting to have cameras, if materials are very delicate or if images are under a strict copyright.  But not letting someone photograph a typed mimeograph from the 1930s is nuts.

What are your best and worst research experiences?


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Truth and fiction

One of the students’ favorite books

As I finish up teaching American Studies 101, I’ve been thinking about how to structure a course on U.S. history after 1865 that integrates the best parts of the American Studies approach with the best parts of the history approach.  On one hand, I loved that the students in AMST 101 read so much fiction that was interesting and challenging — we could have great discussions that included both an examination of the literary form and a meditation on the era.  On the other hand, sometimes I wanted my students to read some good old fashioned historical documents, too.  I feel like we could have had some really great material if we had had time to break down the 14th and 15th Amendments, or NSC-68, or Herbert Hoover’s response to the New Deal. Fiction is great for getting a feel for the prevailing ideas and mood of the period, but sometimes the historian in me wants to dig my claws into the documents.

In the interest of finding out what works, last Friday, I asked my students what they liked about the course they’d been taking and what they would want me to change for next year’s crop of students.

What they loved:

-Reading John Hersey’s HiroshimaTim O’Brien’s The Things They Carriedand Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

-When I gave them lectures on the origins of American institutions that seemed “inevitable” to them, like slavery — they liked when I did what we grad students would call “restoring contingency” to the historical narrative

-When I connected things across time periods, like following when Native Americans showed up in our course narrative from beginning to end, and how depictions of them changed over time

-Anytime someone showed them a video of something, especially the videos about Emmett Till, Kent State, and Vietnam

What they hated:

-Reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (but only because they had read it too many times before and wanted the point of view of someone different, preferably a woman)

-That everything we read was “depressing”

-Taking reading quizzes (me too, kids, me too)

-That there wasn’t much overlap between the content of the lectures and the recitation sections, where we discussed novels but didn’t have time for much else

Consequently, I’ve been trying to dream up a syllabus that lets students engage with the cultural and literary aspects of reading fiction while giving them some firm ground to stand on in the primary document department (my postmodernist alarm bell is ringing to remind me that ‘historical truth’ is a fiction as well, but for now, we’ll back away from the existentialist cliff).  What books and documents would you assign to try to combine both?


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Creative assignments

So, I’m working on my syllabus for the course on the Civil War in Popular Culture that I’m teaching this summer.  (Or, to be completely accurate, that I will teach if anyone ever signs up for it.  Only 3 so far.  Why doesn’t anyone want to take my awesome class that involves watching lots of movies for credit?  YOU’RE KILLING ME, SMALLS.)

Right.  So, this being the first class over which I have complete topical and pedagogical control, I’m eager to test out some of the theories I’ve been floating around for the last five years, based on my own experiences and observations in the classroom. One of these theories is that people are more motivated to succeed and to engage with the material if they feel they have some choice in what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it.

One way I’ve tried to let students do this is by telling me what kinds of learning activities most suit them — small group work, talking all together as a class, doing lots of review and making lots of charts on the board of what we’re studying, getting up and out of the classroom to do and see things, making the class competitive, etc.  Sometimes this works very well — I once had a class with a really high proportion of athletes, who had a hard time sitting still.  One beautiful day, talking about the Seven Years’ War, I asked them to design an outdoor game that would teach 5th or 6th graders about the war.  They devised two: one game of “chain tag” where two people acted as “It” — one being the “British” and the other being the “French” — and tried to gather up as many “Native American allies” as they could from the remaining class members.  The other game was a modified Red Rover in which one line represented the Treaty Line of 1763  and the other line was colonists trying to break through across the Appalachians.  Then we went outside and played these games, and a great time was had by all, except I almost twisted my ankle during chain tag and felt very sheepish and old.

Other times, classes will tell you that they like to do one kind of activity but they will be consistently unenthusiastic about actually doing any such thing.  They will instead prop their heads on their desks and look at you with very pained expressions because you dared to suggest such shenanigans at 9 o’clock in the morning when they were out until 3 the night before.  Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof! I say.

The other way I want to get students involved in choosing their own learning adventure is by encouraging them to write on a topic that they love, using their newly-acquired historian skills to analyze it and make an argument about some aspect of it.  You love baseball?  How about writing a final paper about Ty Cobb and racism in baseball?  You love mystery TV shows?  How about a final paper on the evolution of gender roles in TV detective shows?  You feel passionate about the obesity epidemic?  How about a paper on how the Depression shaped food policy?

The point is, I feel that when you care about what you’re researching, and when you’re eager to tell people about it, you’re going to be motivated not only to do a good job, but also to develop the critical thinking skills that are the bread and butter of the bachelor’s degree.  Before you know it you’re going to be thinking about all of your passions in historical context and analyzing them.  [Spoiler alert: this ruins movies for you for all time, and also makes people not want to see movies with you because you can’t stop analyzing them in public.  Personally, I think developing a critique of the gender dynamic between the wizard and witches of The Great and Powerful Oz while you’re watching it adds to the movie-going experience, but I will tell you that when I shared my theories with my mother after the show, she said something like, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, YOU’RE ON VACATION.”]

Nevertheless, this summer, I am trying to see if I can get my students to “buy in” by letting them do a “choose your own final project” assignment.  I was thinking that I wanted them to be able to come away with something for their portfolios — either a research project for the grad school-bound, a creative work (including painting, music, film, or fiction) with a 4-5 page artist’s statement, a public history/digital project (live-tweeting the Civil War, blogging, something on some platform I’m probably already too old to know about), a design for a historical site/museum exhibition (including wall-text, etc.), or (for the people who just don’t care) a comparative book review.

What do you think?  Is a flexible final project the path to history greatness, or am I crazy and likely to receive several misshapen sculptures made out of cheese, like the one I made for an ill-fated assignment for Brian Curran’s Michelangelo class in 2004?  [Helpful hint: cheese ball is not the best medium for sculpting a replica of the David.  Also, the smell will never really come off your hands.]

What techniques do you use to get students to buy in to your assignments?

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Grief and history

I’m reluctant to begin writing this, because I know that I’m tempting fate — that by investigating my feelings I’m risking turning today from an okay day to a really bad one.  But here goes.

Three years ago today my father died.  My life will forever be divided into before that day and after it, although I’m sure that sometime in my future more of those watershed moments will emerge.  It was a Friday evening, and my friends were in the process of coming over for a game of Risk, and I got a phone call that completely changed my life.

Anyone who has lost someone close to them will be familiar with what I experienced in the aftermath of that trauma.  A sense of surreal shock that followed me for months — and the realization, after the shock finally wore off, that I was just starting to grieve.  The intense gratitude to the people who without being asked just helped and understood.  The sarcastic, bitter anger against people who were thoughtlessly unkind.  And the anguish of trying, and failing, to understand.  What was the point, I asked myself, of the 55 years that my father spent striving to learn things and to make a life for himself and for his family, if it was just going to end one afternoon?

Meanwhile, I was trying to go to graduate school and write a dissertation about dead people.  To say that my enthusiasm for the subject had dimmed would be an understatement.  If anything, my grief had increased my appreciation for the living, and I was anxious to spend my energies on connecting with my friends and family who were still with me, lest I lose a minute with any of them.  Let the dead bury the dead — my mother and sister needed me more than Abraham Lincoln did.

But I also wanted to complete my doctoral degree, if only because I felt that the experience had damn near destroyed me, and — stubborn little mule that I am — I refused to let it.  Oh yeah? I wanted to say to my father, to every person who had been hostile or unhelpful, to Death itself, You thought you could derail my plans?  Turn me into a directionless, mopey twenty-something who was too overcome with grief and frustration to succeed?  Well, how do you like me NOW? 

So I tried to find some renewed sense of purpose in my work.  My adviser said to me, “Use your grief to motivate you to be a better historian,” which I at first found to be the most self-indulgent thing I had ever heard.  Oh, great, my father lived and died so I could be a better historian.  I very much doubt that was the Universe’s plan.  And if it was, I am appalled at the Universe.

But, with some distance, I do feel that having experienced such intense grief has made me into a better historian.  For starters, I feel that I have a better grasp of the full range of human emotion, which makes historical actors much more real to me than they used to be.  I used to find people in the past to be pretty hilarious, with their silly ideas and their unreasonable passions, and so often my forays into history were an exercise in amusing myself.  Now, I find myself much better able to empathize with my subjects, to see them as whole people with intense emotions and desires, to grant them mercy for their follies and to love them better for striving.  Life is hard to live and to figure out, then as now, and while it’s easy to judge the people in the past, it’s much harder to try to understand them.

Second, I’ve learned a lot about memory.  Without going into the sordid details, I will say that after my father died there was a great difference of opinion among those who knew him as to what kind of a man he was.  I was shocked to find that others’ memories of my father differed so much from my own — some were inclined to rewrite history so that he had never so much as uttered a cross word (and let me tell you, my ears are still ringing from some of the cross words he uttered at about 150 decibels, following some misadventure committed by my sister or me), and others took the opposite route, struggling to find a single positive attribute in his character (and there were many, especially his sense of humor and generosity).

Before this, I had had difficulty understanding how historical actors had felt so strongly about defending their version of events–really, the Civil War was over, how important could it really be as to whether the South lost because its cause was unjust or because the North had overwhelming numbers?–but I found myself incredibly infuriated and bewildered when someone else suggested that their understanding of my father trumped my own.  You didn’t know him like I did! I wanted to shout.  You weren’t there!  You didn’t see!  How could you think you knew him better than I did?  I would never have thought that such a struggle over memory would have such an effect on me, that I could be so wounded by someone else claiming my father’s memory.  And so I learned something about what motivated people in the past to fight so hard for their own memory of events to triumph in the public sphere — it just seems impossible to let what feels like a lie persist in the thoughts and words of others.  (I’ve gotten better at letting everyone have his or her own memory of my father since then, but it’s not easy).   

I suppose the last thing I’ve learned from grief as a historian is that no matter how small an event may seem, for someone it was a life-changer.  It’s easy sometimes to say, oh, this little skirmish only had three casualties, what’s the big deal?  But those people were someone’s brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, children, lovers, friends, acquaintances, even future parents.  An event ripples through relationships like a raindrop spreading across an ocean.  And our job as historians is never to lose sight of that humanity.



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