Friday, July 30, 2010

Reading Journal: "The War That Made America"

Fred Anderson, The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. New York: Viking, 2005.

This year is the 250th anniversary of the end of the French and Indian War, the war that left Great Britain in control of Canada and brought to a close the conflict between Britain and France over disputed territory west of the Allegheny Mountains.  1759 was the annus mirabilis for Britain, the year in which British forces defeated the French in engagement after engagement over several continents, and took control of Qu├ębec in the decisive battle on the Plains of Abraham.  In Britain and her American colonies, that battle made a national hero of General James Wolfe, who fell on the Plains of Abraham as his troops were surging to victory.  The war also gave Britain's American colonists a keener sense of their own rights as British subjects, and set the stage for American independence.  

The French and Indian War began in 1754, when a 22-year old Virginian militia officer led a small detachment from his regiment into a lopsided 15-minute engagement with French troops in southeastern Pennsylvania.  The officer was George Washington.  

Fred Anderson's book, published as a companion volume to a PBS series, is a first-rate introduction to the French and Indian War.  Anderson is excellent at revealing the motivations and understanding the actions on all three sides of the conflict: the French, the British, and the Indian.  His writing is clear and engaging, and the text is well-illustrated.  This has to be the best general introduction to the French and Indian War for the general reader.  But for readers who want a more in-depth study of the war, with footnotes, Anderson is also the author of the magisterial Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The flowers are a little past their peak, and have begun to produce miniature pea pods, but the drifts of purple and white flowers in the Upper Arb are still beautiful on a sunny Sunday morning.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Salmon with Chu Chee Curry Sauce

In a medium saucepan, gently heat 1/4 of a 14 oz. can light coconut milk, whisking in 2 teaspoons each Thai red curry paste and Thai chili paste until dissolved. Add the rest of the can of coconut milk, 2 tablespoons fish sauce and 2 teaspoons palm (or brown) sugar.  Simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat.  Serve over grilled salmon, with rice, and garnished with Thai basil leaves and a slice of lime.
This is a slightly reduced fat version of Fried Salmon with Chu Chee Curry Sauce from Khamtane Signavong's Lemongrass and Sweet Basil: Traditional Thai Cooking (Interlink Books 2005), substituting grilled salmon for salmon fried in oil, and light coconut milk for coconut cream and coconut milk.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reading Journal: "The Curate's Wife"

E.H. Young, The Curate's Wife. Virago Modern Classics 1984. Originally published in Great Britain in 1934.

A cursory examination of my bookshelves reveals several novels, all written by women, with titles like The Curate's Wife, The Rector's Daughter, Her Son's Wife and The Optimist's Daughter—in other words, novels whose titles are taken, not from a woman's name, but from a woman's relationship, as wife or daughter, to a man.  

Jane Austen's novels—inevitably, we come back to Jane Austen—are essentially Regency coming-of-age stories.  They're about how Catherine Morland or Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse grow up, find themselves, and find romance into the bargain.  The novels end with a marriage—but don't go any further to imagine how that marriage is sustained over the years that follow.  

In so many of the great Victorian novels, the marriage plot is given an extra twist, and becomes a remarriage plot.  An unsuitable first marriage—David Copperfield to Dora, Dorothea to Casaubon, Helen Graham to Arthur Huntingdon, Mr. Rochester to the mad woman in the attic—is set up as an obstacle to the two true lovers.  We do see husbands and wives working hard at their relationships, or resigning themselves to relationships that don't work at all, but the death of one spouse usually brings resolution.  The novel ends with a marriage after all.  The first marriage is only a test, or in David Copperfield's case, a kind of toy marriage.  

The Curate's Wife is a sequel to Jenny Wren—a novel that takes its title from the female protagonist, Jenny Rendall, a self-centered girl struggling to find her place in the world.  It's a kind of coming-of-age story. Jenny's sister, Dahlia, marries the dull, earnest, and thoroughly smitten Rev. Cecil Sproat, and becomes the eponymous curate's wife.  Her story is more about how relationships are sustained.  It's a novel about marriage—not marriage as a happy ending, but marriage as a career.  

"It has to be a career," Dahlia says, "not just the happiness you think it will be, or the unhappiness it may turn out."  

At the same time, Jenny, who has remained unmarried, finds herself in a Jane Austen plot—so much so that Austen's own Lady Catherine De Bourgh makes an unexpected comic appearance in the novel.  E.H. Young acknowledges her own deep debt to Jane Austen, while at the same time acknowledging that there is a real story beyond the happy ending.  

Also, unlike Austen, Young acknowledges that her men and women are physical beings who experience sexual attraction and long for physical intimacy.  The most unsympathetic and maladjusted character in the novel is a woman who "would never forgive [her husband] the physical intimacy of their youth," and has been left with "an unacknowledged, unreasonable feeling that she had been insulted."   In a way that seems remarkable for 1934, E.H. Young acknowledges that a healthy sexual relationship is an important part of a successful marriage.  

Blogging on Blog Divided

Today I published my first blog post for Blog Divided, a community blog that focuses on the history of the period from 1840 to 1880—the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. The primary purpose of the blog, and of the House Divided Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, is to provide resources for classroom teachers to explore this period in American history.  I've been asked to provide blog posts on the Greek and Roman classics in the education and culture of the period.  

Here's my first post.  From now on, my posts will be aggregated over in the right sidebar.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Civil War Naval Cannon in Waconia, Minnesota

This naval cannon, located in City Square Park, was cast at the famous Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia in 1846.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

History Trivia Quiz #1

Name five Civil War generals who served, either before or after the war, as college presidents. Also give the names of the colleges. (Answers in the comments.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mapping the Civil War

Last night I finally came to the end of a long and hard-fought campaign. I finished reading The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. I might not have fought through to the end had it not been for the reinforcement of a good atlas. Much of the book is a description of the movement and positioning of troops, and of the territory over which they passed. Like Grant's army, I started to get bogged down in the bayous around Vicksburg. Here's a representative passage:
Lieutenant-Colonel [James H.] Wilson of my staff was sent to Helena, Arkansas, to examine and open a way through to Moon Lake and the Yazoo Pass if possible. Formerly there was a route by way of an inlet from the Mississippi River to Moon Lake, a mile east of the river, thence east through Yazoo Pass to Coldwater, along the latter to Tallahatchie, which joins the Yallabusha about two hundred and fifty miles below Moon Lake and forms the Yazoo River.
This is much easier to follow on a good map, such as the map that Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson produced.

To guide me through the hard terrain of Grant's Memoirs, I relied on the National Geographic Atlas of the Civil War: A Comprehensive Guide to the Tactics and Terrain of Battle (256 pp., $40). The atlas begins with an essay on the importance of cartography in the Civil War. "Southerners," the essay concludes, "had the advantage of fighting this war largely on their own soil, but that was offset as the conflict progressed by the superior mapmaking resources of the North." The Union armies had to penetrate deep into Confederate territory, and face an opponent who was familiar with the lay of the land, so mapmakers like Wilson were essential to the Union's success. And the maps they made continue to be essential for those attempting to follow the movements of the armies a century and a half later.

The National Geographic Atlas is full of colorful, easy-to-read large format maps, most of them either contemporary or produced soon after the war. Some of the most remarkable maps are those produced by Robert Knox Sneden, a Union soldier, mapmaker and painter who produced a remarkable illustrated diary, much of it composed secretly while he was being held in Andersonville Prison. The diary was rediscovered in 1994, and currently resides in the Virginia Historical Society. Go here to see Sneden's map of the investment of Petersburg, one of the maps included in the atlas.

Another atlas that I occasionally consulted was Aaron Sheehan-Dean's Oxford Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War (112 pp., $25). This is a small paperback book with maps produced by the author using GIS and Adobe Illustrator. For a reader attempting to follow the movements of Grant's army, the Oxford atlas falls short. Its strength lies in its inclusion of data maps that illustrate census data such as agricultural productivity in the United States at the outbreak of the Civil War. These maps are often surprising. For example, the map of agricultural productivity shows that, although the South is generally thought of as agricultural and the North as industrial, the North actually generated more agricultural wealth in 1860. Wheat produced by free labor was more lucrative than cotton produced by slaves, and the North produced more commodities for home consumption, while the South relied too heavily on staple crops for export. These maps, and the accompanying text, are extremely useful in providing some socioeconomic context for the war, but the actual battle maps are disappointingly lacking in detail.

For the neophyte like me, I would recommend the National Geographic Atlas. It's beautifully illustrated, easy to read, admirably comprehensive and, at $40, reasonably priced for such a large and well-illustrated book.

Friday, July 2, 2010

MCA Results: What Do They Mean?

Yesterday, the Minnesota Department of Education released the results of the spring 2010 MCA tests (MInnesota Comprehensive Assessment). The MDE's official press release begins with the teaser: "Data reveals success of strong high stakes graduation requirement."  The press release goes on to tout improvements in test scores over previous years.  

Northfield schools continued to score higher than the state average, while schools in Faribault generally fell below the state average at each grade level, despite improvements over last year. Unsurprisingly, Faribault's superintendent, Bob Stepaniak, is "frustrated," and Northfield's superintendent, Chris Richardson, is "encouraged." 

What does this mean?  What does it mean that Northfield outperformed a school district only fifteen miles away? 

Part of the answer surely is in demographics.  Faribault has a higher percentage of "free and reduced price lunch" students—a measure of poverty—than Northfield.  In Northfield, the median family income is $61,000; in Faribault, it's not quite $50,000. Socioeconomic factors certainly have an impact on standardized test scores.  These factors are largely outside the control of the school districts, and are not taken into consideration in determining whether districts are making "adequate yearly progress" toward a goal of 100% proficiency in 2014.

Behind the aggregate numbers are individual students, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, each with individual needs.  As Northfield superintendent Richardson told the Northfield News, "The best information...lies below the surface of the data.  Parents and educators...will learn much more by looking at individual students' data, considering the areas in which they performed well and struggled."

Let's imagine an average 4th grade classroom.  The state average in reading is 72.5% proficient. As you can imagine, there are all sorts of scenarios by which a classroom might be "average." With twenty students per classroom, the numbers might look like this: 10 students at 90% proficiency; 5 students at 70% proficiency; 5 students at 40% proficiency.  Half the class is very high performing (90%), a quarter of the class is about average, a quarter of the class is well below average.  The significant information here is not the aggregate score (72.5%, the state average), it's the performance of the individual students. What can the teacher do to continue to challenge the students at 90% and to improve the outcomes of the students at 70% or 40%? This, not the aggregating of numbers and the making of graphs, is the real challenge for educators.  How do you help real students who are more complex than mere numbers?

Iv'e plugged in some simple numbers in a small sample size.  Imagine the situation in a classroom of 30 or more in the Faribault Public Schools.  The challenge becomes even more daunting.

The aggregate data fails to see students as individuals, and the determination of whether schools are "failing" or "succeeding" fails to see that data in context.  I would much rather see the data put in context, and used to provide targeted instruction for individual students, than used in aggregate as a simplistic and decontextualized  method of determining whether schools are "passing" or "failing."  

To me, the aggregate numbers mean little.  More important is how the school works with each individual student to assess and address his or her strengths and weaknesses.  Assessment results should be part of a feedback loop that provides information to teachers to help them target their instruction. Those results should not be part of a system of punishment and reward.  

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .