Dr. Mona Hassan: “International Pursuit of an Islamic Caliphate in the 1920s.”

I attended Dr. Hassan’s lecture partially because I’m the teaching assistant for a course on modern Middle Eastern history this year, and also partially because I am secretly quite interested in Middle Eastern history. I say secretly because I’ve barely admitted this to myself, yet…I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. All I know so far is that it’s one of the only other geographic areas that has seriously grabbed my interest!

Sadly, I think I wasn’t a very good participant at this particular lecture. I wasn’t familiar enough with the subject matter to really be a full participant, since some of the concepts and specifics were too nuanced for me to completely grasp. From my notes, though, her lecture centered around the 1924 dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate by the Turkish government. Her talk explored the multiple attempts during the 1920s to reinstate or somehow reestablish a greater Muslim caliphate, and the international participation in these conversations. Central to her topic were the ideas of modernism and globalization, and how the did or did not conflict with pre-existing social constructs.

What struck me during this talk was the global effort to restore an Islamic Caliphate. It reminded me of Zionist movements and the efforts to reestablish a Jewish homeland. Maybe I drew these parallels because I don’t know enough about the topic, but I found it fascinating to think about the collective cultural desire for an established home/seat for a diverse collective. I wonder how this manifests itself in other areas, with other groups.

Dr. Hassan’s lecture style itself allowed me to come to a few conclusions as well. First, I think it’s very important to include a brief comment on the context of your topic. Doing this will help non-specialists to engage more fully in your discussion. Second, slides provide a great subject to focus on during a lecture! They should always add to the depth and content of the lecture instead of acting as placeholders–they’re prime real estate, and so should do double duty.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dr. Hassan’s work showed me how nicely different concepts can intersect. She works with politics, gender, religion, and social issues and was able to tie them all together into one interesting topic. It was nice to see this in practice physically rather than just in print form.

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Reading, Thinking, Reflecting, and MGMT

I’m no good at broad retrospectives. I tend to become a bit sentimental, and let my emotions get the best of me. So, for me, answering how I’ve changed and what I’ve learned over the past year is actually a fairly difficult question. I learned; I thought; I changed.

I suppose I’ve had a similar experience to other students who have come here—I arrived with an ideal in mind of what I would achieve quickly realized I knew nothing despaired of ever learning anything, and now am buoyed up by the thought that maybe some part of me will prove worthwhile if I work harder than I’ve ever worked for anything. We’ll see about that. I’m not convinced yet, but we’ll see.

I have learned a lot about teaching that I never knew before. My experience has always been with primary and secondary students in a museum classroom, so being a teaching assistant was completely new to me. I have seen so many different ways to structure and conduct a class that I had never been exposed to before. Perhaps most importantly, I thought critically about the ways I saw classes being taught. I noticed what students responded to and why, and started slowly building an arsenal of techniques that seem to work. I’ve started hoarding syllabi and ideas, despite the fact that I don’t plan to teach. I think that knowing how to organize and engage a class is important anyway, and I’ve started to learn more about that. No matter where I end up, this has been an important thing to learn.

I have learned a lot about reading in ways I never knew possible. I came here with mixed experience, having been both a history and English undergrad. It was difficult to transition from close-reading to the how-can-I-possibly-read-all-this-in-three-days reading I need to do in order to complete my assignments. I don’t think this style of reading is bad—it’s just different. It develops different skills and makes my brain work in different ways. I like that.

I have learned that I miss people. I missed spending my January and February teaching preschoolers about farming and shapes and patterns; I missed helping to launch field trips for excited fourth graders who learned about American history in their books but got to see it come to life; I missed helping adults experience something new about a topic they’ve known their whole lives. Heck, I even missed sitting through interminably long meetings where it seems you get nothing done. I missed connecting with people, and connecting them to history. I did not miss that weird school lunch smell that always seems to emanate from lunch boxes no matter how new or fresh they are and somehow always involves the aroma of somewhat off bologna…thinking about that still makes me a bit queasy.

And so all this to say that I’ve come to realize three main things about me and my experiences attempting to become a historian. First, it takes a lot of thinking. Not just perfunctory thinking, but elbow-deep-in-the-mire thinking where you need every bit of brain-strength you have to get from one point to another. I’ve learned to ask better questions of others, of myself, of sources. I’ve learned that it’s ok to ask questions of established historians, as long as you can substantiate the reason you’re asking. I’ve learned that, really, there’s no point unless you’re going to ask questions. This critical thinking is requisite. You can’t just proceed with the way of thinking you’ve always done and that has always served you well. You need to be open to new ways of approaching sources and situations, open to being taught new ways of analysis. Maybe you don’t enjoy them, but you have to acknowledge that they have a use and a place. Second, I’ve started thinking more thematically, for lack of a better word. I’ve started thinking in a way that always involves a mystery—there’s always a question, and always evidence that helps to support or refute what I think is the answer. Instead of focusing on details, this has led me to start collecting the details into a greater whole which, you guessed it, requires even more thinking. Finally, all of this combines to make me believe that there is no point at which any one person becomes a historian. I think it is an ongoing process of development through the years that requires constant work, attention, and thinking.

I have learned that there’s way too much for me to ever know, but that I need to keep trying. And, whenever I get bummed, I return to the lyrical genius of MGMT: “Yeah it’s overwhelming but what else can we do…get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?” I’d rather try and learn, yet never know than to have never tried at all.

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Reflecting on Feedback

Feedback is hard. You’ve produced a piece of work, you’ve worked to create something, and then you let other people see it and instead of seeing the beautiful creature you hoped it would be…they see it for what it actually is. I find that I become blinded by the act of working on something; things that are clear to me don’t come through my writing because I assume the reader is, well, me. Needless to say, the feedback I received from a variety of sources on my thesis proposal was amazingly helpful. Throughout this process, and through peer-reviewing, I found that I so frequently get lost in my project that I fail to articulate it properly to other people. It also showed me how frightened I have really been about committing to a project. This has been abundantly evident in my feedback—I bounce from topic to topic in an unorganized way, and don’t lead my reader through. I don’t give enough signposts to where I plan to go, and enough explanation as to why.

For my next draft, I plan on doing many things differently. First, I’ve come to terms with forming an argument and will be presenting something I feel far more comfortable with. Having my readers ask me questions about my argument, and how I plan to support it, made me realize how uncomfortable I was with it. This made me intensely question my own argument, and settle on something more discreet that I am more comfortable with, and feel that captures the type of history I want to do. Second, I need to be more succinct and organized. My last draft was difficult to follow and contained unnecessary information. In the amount of space I have, I understand now that I need to be more pointed in my content and provide the necessary information instead of fluff. Third, editing. I didn’t edit my copy enough. I need to take time to step back and read my draft with fresh and critical eyes. Part of this is adapting my writing to appropriately address an audience. If I write consciously and with purpose every step of the way, I think this will be an easier task and I will better communicate my ideas. Finally, I know that I am going to change my chapter outline. Of course, this is influenced by my changing argument, but in hindsight my layout didn’t really flow well. I look forward to my next draft as an opportunity to create a project that I can take into the summer excited to research!

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Peer Reviewing

As someone who has been involved in museum education, I firmly believe that there is great benefit to learning-by-doing, that some of your greatest insights will come when you are elbow-deep in a concept or project. And that is precisely what I learned from my peer-reviewing of David’s paper–through evaluating his project, I was better able to understand how to improve my own project.

I frequently find it difficult to impose distance between myself and my project, which can be problematic. As I went through David’s proposal and critically asked it the questions we developed in class, I found myself thinking back to my own project and how I could objectively ask those same questions of it. By reading his paper in a detached yet interested way, I found that I could offer better commentary on its successes and weaknesses which I hope will be of value as he moves forward with his project. Taken in conjunction with the feedback provided by Drs. Jones and Kiechle, I feel that this exercise helped to teach me how to evaluate my own work more critically. I know what I hoped to see in reading a proposal, especially within the framework of the questions we developed, and think I can now go back to my own proposal and do the same with a clearer mind and stronger idea of what to loko for.

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Secondary Source Review

Over the past week, I’ve attempted to continue explorations into general histories of daily life in the North American colonies during the eighteenth century. While this seems like quite a broad topic, I’ve also been supplementing it with articles specific to colonial New York and Albany. One of the articles was “A Middling Sort: Artisans and Merchants in Colonial Albany” by Stefan Bielinski. In this work, Bielinski establishes Albany as a critically important trade center under both Dutch and English control, and as a location that defined the settling and development of New York’s frontier.[1] He argues that the majority of Albany residents during the seventeenth century were deeply involved in the trade network that first created Albany in some way—if not directly trading, they were then secondarily involved with production of goods to enable or promote the trade system.[2] This trade network was originally based on fur, though by the early eighteenth century had transitioned to focus on grains and lumber.[3] With this transition in trade items also came a transition in roles, creating a distinct middling class of individuals who worked in support roles that Bielinski classifies as being “production-based.”[4] He follows these claims with detailed descriptions of the geographic development of Albany during the eighteenth century, going so far as to list different neighborhoods and the commercial ventures present in the different areas. Overall, he draws off census, tax, and trade records to create a social history of Albany that demonstrates its integral role in the greater New York community as a center of commercial and cultural trade.

Of particular interest in this piece is Bielinski’s reference to the Colonial Albany Project, a collaborative project that documented the details of individual lives of seventeenth and eighteenth century Albany residents. I wasn’t aware of this resource, though it may certainly be useful in my research this summer. I’m reminded of Donna Merwick’s book, Death of a Notary, which charts the life of a seventeenth century notary in Albany. It’s been years since I read this book, but I’m not curious to see what sources she used to complete this microhistory, and to see if this Project appears in her notes. The rest of Bielinski’s sources also relate directly to the social history of colonial Albany, both under Dutch and English rule, and document details of what everyday life was like in this important city. I’m excited to start tracking them down and exploring what they have to say.

 

[1] Stefan Bielinski, “A Middling Sort: Artisans and Merchants in Colonial Albany,” New York History 73, no.3 (July 1992): 262-263.

[2] Ibid., 264.

[3] Ibid., 266.

[4] Ibid., 276-277.

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Writing a Thesis Proposal: A Reflection

While I found the process stressful at the time, I am so happy that we wrote a draft proposal this spring!Not only was it a good exercise in the writing style necessary for our official proposal next fall, but it also taught me about my own project.

I sat down to write this paper, and realized I knew nothing and doubted I could even write it. But, of course, I had to write it, so I had to try. Needing to organize my thoughts into one coherent manuscript baldly pointed out my weakest points. In my case, I believe, my argument is quite weak and I’m not sure it’s actually what I want to argue. Yet this same exercise also helped to show me the way forward. By distilling my thoughts down, I now know moving forward where my areas of research need to focus, and what I need to strengthen.

Likewise, it raised a cautionary flag to me about my scope. Is this really a project that I can undertake? Is my argument trying to argue too much? Perhaps, I have come to think. But, as I move forward with my primary research, I am hopeful that I will be able to strengthen and condense my argument. This would eliminate the thousand different directions I present it in my draft proposal, and would help my overall project.

For my next proposal, I plan to have (as stated above) a firmer argument. I also plan to have a better handle on overall chapter organization. I think this area was also a weakness, fueled by a weak argument that failed to provide the necessary foundation for a sensible outline. And, of course, my next proposal won’t be written next fall. It will be this proposal, rethought and redrafted, before going into summer research. While a shifting focus statement can help organize research and thought, I think this will help to better organize my overall project.

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Secondary Source Readings: A Revolution in Eating

One of the sources I reviewed this week was A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America by James E. McWilliams, published in 2005 by Columbia University press. I suppose you could say that the two of us have a bit of a complicated history.

In 2009 I wrote my undergraduate thesis, a pretty terrible paper on the development of an American culinary identity during the late 18th century. I say pretty terrible, but it had potential. I was both happy and desperately saddened when, years later, I picked up McWilliams’ work only to read the paper I had hoped to write if I had had the time and resources. My great idea had already been thought. And yet, this is the very book that prompted me to return to school. The more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with him and thought that there needed to be additional and more varied research on this topic. Plus, he clearly lacks a comprehensive understanding of how butter is made. If that’s not reason enough to take issue with this work, then I don’t know what is…

In this book, he argues that food acted as an indicator if identity during the 18th century and, more importantly, during the early years of the new republic. Early food choices were based on necessity, regional differences, lack of choice, and an unconscious need for identity. The plainness of “American” food, he claims, was an act of identity-making, a rejection of British-influenced foods. Corn became an American standard, as did domestically brewed beer. This, essentially, became the root of an American culinary identity.

I find this work slightly problematic. He uses a very casual tone which is perfectly fine, but he fails to provide footnotes to back up his airy claims. He provides endnotes, but they are associated with a particular page as opposed to a specific sentence. He also doesn’t approach the idea of whether or not taste preference played a role in his purported transitions, and, I believe, doesn’t give enough credit to other global influences. He is almost Turner-esque in his portrait of American settlers developing a diet of frontier necessity, while I believe there is more credit due to the vast trade networks already in place by the early 18th century.

However—he has pointed me to some important resources that I need to consult concerning the politics of American identity-making, ideologies of the AWI, and also potential primary sources that could help in my research.

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Learning Methodology from Historians

I was so very excited to hear Dr. Mark Smith’s keynote at the Bertoti Conference last week—I had recently been advised to read his work The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege and was interested to hear what he had to say about sensory history. It seems my ill-luck was to be two-fold, last week. The VT library not have Smith’s book, and interlibrary loan didn’t get it in time for me to read it before his lecture. Not that it would have helped all that much, as I fainted halfway through and spent the remainder with the beginnings of what proved to be a massive migraine. Yes, this is me whining. I’m sorry, but I’m very bummed about it all. That being said, I was coherent enough to hear Dr. Smith note that he doesn’t see sensory history as a subfield, but rather as a habit, as an ingrained approach to history. Though I have yet to read his book, my research hopes to explore taste, and how it operated as a manifestation of identity and was influenced by consumer culture. While it is new to me, I feel that sensory history will have a place in my research. I am very excited to explore Smith’s work to better understand the methodology involved with sensory history, though I am sure Dr. Kiechle will be able to point me in the direction of other useful sources.

I also believe that using economic history will be important to my research, since I hope to explore how food was a consumer item during the mid to late 18th century. T.H. Breen’s concept of a consumer revolution helping to homogenize culture will be central to my argument. His treatment of material culture and food items within a framework of economics and consumption are also very important for my research, and have helped me to learn how to approach food as a signifier (to borrow Michael LaCombe’s term) of greater social, political, and economic trends.

I have always seen myself as a cultural historian, and hope that my research will continue in this vein. While hoping to utilize the methods of the above historians, I plan to focus on individuals and their specific place within a specific history. I will need to rely on identity theory, while also understanding and appreciating the nuances of food as a subject in its own right. Finally, I will need to approach cookbooks in a unique way, as more than just a collection of recipes. Works by Janet Theophano and Barbara Ketcham Wheaton will help me to approach these sources with an appropriate frame of mind.

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A Developing Focus Statement

What does the changing taste of “American” palettes have to say about greater social, economic, and political trends during the mid to late 18th century? By studying cookbooks, travel narratives, and diaries, it can be concluded that taste and food consumption served as an intense field of political discourse. Fueled by what historian T.H. Breen calls a consumer revolution, the oppositional forces of Anglicization and creolization worked to define colonists by the cultural items they purchased and intimately interacted with on a daily basis. I believe that there was a unifying and anglicizing trend from the middle of the century on, which mitigated regional differences and ethnic diversity in an effort to create an identity of “British American.” By approaching cookbooks as prescriptive literature, we can discover the recommended social norm—an adaptive yet distinctly English table, with as much (if not more) emphasis on items from throughout the British Empire as on native American ingredients. Taste itself became an embodiment of identity during this period, with food acting as much a consumer item as the openly controversial glass or paper. What you served on your table and what you enjoyed eating was a statement of identity as well as a politicized act. Historian James McWilliams argues that American cuisine changed following independence, rejecting British influence and becoming the plain fare that seems so indicative of the 19th century. Was this a change in the American palette, a transition in taste, or a continued political statement learned during the American War of Independence?

The first published cookbook composed by an American author was not released until 1796, a considerable period after America declared herself politically independent. Prior to this point, households relied on British cookbooks that were either imported or reprinted in the American colonies, or on vernacular cooking habits passed down through families and communities. Comparing published cookbooks from this period with surviving family recipe books demonstrates that, for families of a certain economic standing, there was a marked influence from these British cookbooks. Travel accounts, and personal diaries offer a counterpoint to these suggested norms, giving insights into what quotidian consumption actually was. Studying these resources from 1740 until 1840 provides a lively discussion of what it meant to become American, both as a subject of the British crown and under the new Republic, and allows us to consider food as commodity as well as taste as an indicator of political and social identity.

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“Subject or Signifier?” and Tracking Method

While focusing on how food studies can and does relate to early American History, I find Michael LaCombe’s article “Subject or Signifier?: Food and the History of Early North America” to be critical to my work. Though he intends the article as a discussion of historiography, he also discusses the developed and developing methodology of historians working with food as their subject and, of course, as a signifier for other events. The two are inextricably tied together (for example, tea as a commodity product and tea as a politicized item speaking to a greater issue), though one is no more or less significant than the other.

LaCombe here advises not how to conduct research, but rather how the subject of food can be used as an integrative tool in early American studies considering that, as of 2013, he believed that there was not yet a developed field of early American food history. “At any given place, time, and occasion,” he writes, “food can be a subject in its own right, a signifier with multiple connotations, or both: food is at once a biological necessity, the focus of daily life and household labor, a marker of identity, and a measure of social inequality. Given this complexity, newer literature has called into question historians’ understanding of how cultures and identities are transmitted from place to place or generation to generation and has articulated a more nuanced understanding of cultural exchange and encounter.”[1] How, then, to tease this out? To be sure that food is integrated into a historical understanding of a space, place, or event?

In his article, LaCombe says that he has “…come to understand the term ‘food’ to embrace, first, culturally specific sets of meanings embodied in certain foods and occasions; and second, the employment of those meanings by men and women rooted in history, in a specific place at a specific time, toward specific ends.”[2] With this in mind, food should be approached as both subject and signifier in research, as both indicative of inherent meaning and associative or situational significance. Methodologically speaking, this means approaching a situation with respect for the embodied history of food as well as an understanding of the broader historical context in which it was operating. With this in mind, food has been used by authors such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Peter Wood as a way to shed light on minority histories of women and African Americans. While employing strong and accepted historical methodology, these historians did not fully use food as the source it is. Instead, he suggests that food acts as a nuanced and fluid entity within history, and that an understanding of this is critical to approaching food in a historicized manner. With these discussions and structures laid bare, it is more useful, now, to return to reading to better understand how and why authors conduct their study—to better understand where in this spectrum of method and understanding and theory they lay, and to understand that in a way that can better help shape my own project.

 

[1] Michael A. LaCombe, “Subject or Signifier?: Food and the History of Early North America,” History Compass 11/10 (2013): 859.

[2] Ibid., 860.

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