Archive for June, 2010

To the chronically tired,

While I may be lazy in my scholarship, let it never be said I’m a stranger to physical labor. On Monday, I started volunteering one morning a week at a local farm here in Northampton. As promised, the work was not glamorous—weeding, weeding, and more weeding—but it was surprisingly satisfying. As an academic, I’ve spent hours and hours revising the same paragraph, only to rework it again the following day. So imagine the joy in releasing a bushel of parsley from the strangling grasp of an encroaching weed, shaking off the soil, and moving on to the next plant. When I came home that afternoon, I still had dirt smeared across my brow—proof! It’s not so easy when your regular work consists of sipping  iced coffee while staring at a computer screen, trying not to cry. I know I’m getting ahead of myself for someone whose farming experience only amounts to four hours. But indulge me, dear reader. Do you know what it’s like to write a dissertation?

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the sustainable farming movement, and the longer history of environmentalism in the U.S. Much of the current organic/local/natural food movement has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, though those hippies probably never suspected their work would yield Whole Foods markets in 39 states (for better or worse).

Their spirit, however, lives on, thanks to Whole Earth Catalog Archive. The Whole Earth Catalog was launched in 1968 by Stewart Brand, described at the time by Tom Wolfe as “a thin blond guy… No shirt, however, just an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher’s coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it.” The goal of the catalog, as the first installment explained, was to market tools that enabled the “individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” The products themselves range kind of wildly–a glass blowing guide, buckskin, hunting boots, self-hypnosis manuals. Though my favorite ad is for Anthony Greenback’s Book of Survival, which beat out The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook by several decades. As the catalog assures, you may laugh, but “next time you’re running from an enraged bull, you remember about flinging down your jacket.”

By 1971, the catalog ballooned from 66 pages to 452, with a well-expanded section on land-use, from gardening to goat husbandry (Beekman Boys, here is your heritage!).

The catalog also yielded the CoEvolution Quarterly, later renamed The Whole Earth Review, also viewable online. They’re worth browsing for the trippy illustrations alone, including this cover from 1977 by Robert Crumb, which lightly parodies the utopian ethos of the back-to-the-land movement. The issue includes Crumb’s comic treatment of a “Modern Dance Workshop,” plus the results of a Stanford study on “Voluntary Simplicity,” lessons on retrofitting tract housing with solar panels, a story by J.G. Ballard, and thoughts on death from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. 70s counterculture was anything but narrow.

Those less eager to flip pages online (or pay for the PDF) can also view some articles in HTML format.

I’ll leave it to readers to reflect on why we’re still fighting the battles the Whole Earth Catalog started forty years ago. For more on the catalog’s afterlife, you can check out Fred Turner’s well-received study From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, or Brand’s latest Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. And for a decidedly contemporary take, check out Adbusters latest issue, titled the “Whole Brain Catalog: Access to Therapies.”

On that note, back to my mental gardening.

Yours holistically,


Read Full Post »

Dear air conditioner enthusiasts,

You may have heard that June is LGBT Pride Month in these United States, marked by rainbow-banner parades in cities across the country. Boston’s passed a few Saturdays ago (favorite sign: “gender is a drag,” courtesy of a Traniwreck marcher), but I’ll confess, the parade that still means the most to me is the one in New York City, from Greenwich Village to Central Park, held every year on the last Sunday in June. Part of my fascination is historical—I wonder how many participants and spectators will know that this is the 40th NYC pride parade. The first was held in 1970 in commemoration of the riots outside the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street. (You can read a scan of the Mattachine Society’s account of the riot on sociologist Toby Marotta’s excellent Community Roots Archive. And see some photos from the first Gay Liberation Parade, like the one below, thanks to the New York Public Library’s digital archive, here and here.)

Diana Davies, NYPL Digitial ID: 1619943

But beyond the political history, NYC’s pride parade still means the most to me because it was one of the crucial ways I tracked my own coming out. In the four years I lived in the East Village and Brooklyn, I never missed the parade, but my reactions to it kept changing. The first summer, I literally stood a few feet back from the main line of spectators, probably afraid some drag queen would literally grab me, pull me over the metal divider, and force to me to march alongside her (or more likely that my face would somehow appear in a local news broadcast). The second summer, I went with a new set of friends, and cheered on a group I meekly referred to, literally, as “lesbians on motorcycles,” not quite ready to embrace their more common moniker. And the third and fourth summers, I went with my boyfriend—though those two honestly start to blur together, which in itself feels like progress.

I went back to grad school, in part, because I wanted to learn more about the cultural history I felt myself to be a part of—a pursuit in which my laziness has been, and remains, key. The latest case in point: OutHistory’s Since Stonewall Local Histories Contest. The online archive invited readers to post their own exhibits, and the results are pretty extraordinary. Where else could you find a history of LGBT visibility in Bloomington, Indiana—now billing itself as the “fifth gayest place in America”? Or a look at FTM trans mentorship in San Francisco? Or photos from the 1978 Reno Gay Rodeo?

For a lesson in more recent history, you can also spend hours digging through the complete run of Outweek. Though it only lasted from 1989 to 1991, Outweek was an important voice in AIDS activism and awareness, taking a more militant approach than the older Advocate (particularly as co-founder Michaelangelo Signorile began “outing” high-profile sorts). It’s worth downloading some PDFs, just for the ads and cartoons. (FYI: You can also view issues of The Advocate from 1994 to 2006 and Out, co-founded by Outweek columnist Michael Goff, from 1999-2006 on Google Books.)

To view an archive in the making, you should also check out I’m From Driftwood, featuring an impressive range of true LGBT tales. Think of it as a queer Storycorps, which of course has its own share of queer tales.

And one last thing for you theatrical types: a re-mastered video of the great Charles Ludlam’s  silent (and campy) horror film Museum of Wax, thanks to the Outfest Legacy Project.

Yours fabulously,


Read Full Post »

Dear sun bathers,

Today the Lazy Scholar talks to a decidedly un-lazy historian, Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College. Baldwin’s  first book, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life, published by UNC Press in 2007, offers an inspired look at the labors and leisures of African-Americans who settled in Chicago in the 1910s and 20s. Touching on figures from famed boxer Jack Johnson to “beauty culture” pioneer Madame C. J. Walker, and topics from “race films” to baseball, Baldwin deftly reveals the political, economic, and social debates behind urban consumer culture. Anyone who studies race, gender, or popular culture should prepare to add it their summer reading lists, and maybe their fall syllabi, too.

What projects are you working on now?
I am actually working on two pretty major projects that have me both excited and overwhelmed. One I am completely done researching, which is Land of Darkness: Race and the Making of Modern America. In this project I take on the long-held axiom that the U.S. social sciences have provided us with modern ideas about race.  I use a close reading of the ‘Chicago School’ at its turn of the twentieth century origins to examine how the lived experiences of race in the city in fact shaped the rise of the U.S. social sciences and their impact on urban public policy throughout the twentieth century.

The second project UniverCities offers a series of case studies to unpack the meaning of urban universities and their attendant medical centers as the dominant employers, real estate holders, policing agents, and educational and health care providers in almost every major metropolitan center in the country.

What digital resource(s) do you rely on, or would you recommend?
For my earlier work, I loved “African-American Newspapers and Periodicals,” but now for my more contemporary studies, I must admit that reading the responses to articles and essays on blogs and websites is quite telling for me about the tenor, especially of a heated cultural issue. So for example, when there was all of this uproar around the comments Serena Williams made to a line judge, the pages of comments did not offer a scientific data set but were fascinating and horrifying nonetheless (can you tell I am working on an essay on the Williams Sisters?)

What non-digital resources would you recommend?
I still love Raymond Williams’ Keywords and the new American Studies version is quite helpful as well.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Especially for historians, who have to manage both the archival and the transmission of that material, we can tend to get bogged down in endless archival work which then makes getting to the writing very difficult even after the archival bits are “completed.” The best advice I got was after you feel like you have done enough archival research to establish a basic argument and vision and all the research is fresh in your head…just write the story. Many of us tend to write and pause at every sentence to find relevant sources. Don’t worry about all that, draft the story and then go back and find the appropriate quotes and sources. Again this is after you have a pretty firm sense of the data. I have been told, by people with whom I shared this advice, that it’s quite liberating!

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
I definitely think it was a my mother. She worked in a factory in the Midwest, but once she got off work (and even on the job) she told these amazing stories, was a mathematical genius and wore these amazing haute couture dresses. SO my basic premise was that everyday folk think and produce knowledge and it is our limitation as scholars for not peering into the world and ways in which people think, create, and debate ideas beyond the church and the seminar room, so in my case consumer culture and consumption itself.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
Someone has already said it here but write on a topic that you LOVE, something that can sustain you for many years on even the days when you don’t want to write. Also even though the current academic marketplace in some ways requires us to write award wining dissertations. I really see the dissertation as a glorified data dump, simply because once you think about a book version the ways in which your imagined audience changes (from a committee of maybe 5 to hopefully hundreds) profoundly transforms your written voice. So that is also some advice: audience. Be clear about who you are speaking to and why, in any piece of writing.

How does your teaching connect to your research?
Trying out ideas on students is amazing, not just to see if the ideas fly but to gauge whether you, the writer/teacher, has delved deep enough into an idea (and come out) with an ability to make that idea legible to a wider audience beyond specialists. But also I have tended to move away from teaching just my research. I think the academy went through that general trend and now we have a generation of students who can speak expertly about their teacher’s expertise but struggle to situate it within larger conceptual, temporal, and spatial contexts.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary. I was abhorred (in some ways) by his Edwardian haughtiness but that he could be so pretentious and still come out with this amazing examination of colonization/decolonization through CRICKET! Truly Amazing! I don’t think enough culture scholars read that book, but then most don’t know cricket, but in some ways you don’t have to.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
I think Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, both because this factual account almost mirrored sci-fi work that I had been reading by people like Paolo Bacigalupi and also because of its amazing global breadth without losing a depth of argument.

What primary source do you dream of finding?
The blueprints that the shopping cart man was pushing around in Ellison’s Invisible Man.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?
Definitely music websites and blogs, especially BBC Radio’s Benji B show…I ALWAYS have to have music to make it through writing projects.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency (or tendencies) in contemporary scholarship?
I definitely see beautiful prose, great stories, polished arguments, but I am missing a messy sense of urgency in writing and thinking out loud THROUGH, not before writing. I am most annoyed by conferences where, the constant spectre of the market, forces young scholars to take a polished 40 page paper and boil it down to 15 minutes with perfection. I miss the days of conferences when you brought an idea at the start of your thinking and tried it out on an audience expecting critique and revision…I miss that.

Read Full Post »

Dear athletics aficionados,

The Lazy Scholar happily welcomes back Matthew Mugmon, a graduate student in music at Harvard. Last heard ruminating on some surprisingly suggestive baseball tunes, Mugmon returns today to tackle another side of sports fandom.

Somewhat recent research suggests that when we root for sports teams, we’re actually rooting for ourselves.  It only makes sense, then, that we want our favorite players to wear uniforms and logos that reflect the way we see ourselves—modern (or classic), hip, attractive, and, of course, intimidating.  If athletic apparel includes logo misfires or design miscalculations, then we might start to lose confidence in our own ability to win at life.

This must be why an article from last November revealing the U.S. World Cup soccer jerseys still collects heated comments from insecure American patriots.  “Gary” aptly observed that the diagonal stripe resembles a beauty pageant sash,  and “Matthew N” went so far as to wish failure on the U.S. team:  “This has to be a god damn joke. These kits are hideous. They are so bad that I really may consider hoping they lose just because of this ugly kit.”

As a lifelong fan of the Washington Capitals hockey team, I get where “Matthew N” is coming from. I admit that my team’s clunky outfit from the late ‘90s until 2007 (pictured below) made me feel slightly self-conscious rooting for them.

Team officials know that a uniform or logo shift can energize or deflate a fan base, so it’s no surprise that they’ve apparently devoted more resources to fashion refinements—and sometimes overhauls — than even many active fans may realize.  Thankfully, we can relive our favorite teams’ cosmetic histories (and thus our own) through an array of digital archives.

My first stop had to be The Hockey Uniform Database, a comprehensive source for information about, and images of, National Hockey League team uniforms and how they’ve changed.  There, I discovered that in their inaugural season (1974-75), the Caps fashion directors made a mistake worse than the later black, white, and gold atrocities: white pants with red shirts. (Unfortunately, this archive doesn’t include images of the white pants, but pictures elsewhere show that it was, in fact, a bad move.  I guess no white after Labor Day really is a rule to live by.)  To explore the database, I recommend tracing the tiny adjustments and the seismic shifts using a “flipbook” browsing technique.  Just pick the first set of jerseys for your selected team (teams are on the left), and then click the right arrow until you reach a uniform combo you really hate.

The Basketball Logo Index from the Association for Professional Basketball Research doesn’t have entire uniforms (and it hasn’t been updated in a while).  But it does allow you to easily compare logos from teams as they moved around, since it includes all the designs of a particular franchise on the same page.  So when the Chicago Zephyrs became the Baltimore Bullets in 1963 (today, the Washington Wizards), we can detect a relationship between the letter styles and spacing in “Zephyrs” and “Bullets” and then appreciate the continuity. Or, we can just laugh at the Fort Wayne Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons) mascot, who seems to have been a giant metal clown.

Turning to football (of the American variety), the level of detail on The Helmet Project is especially striking, considering that most football teams’ logos haven’t noticeably changed over the years.  A diehard fan can use this site as a starting point for a dissertation on football helmet art.  Here’s the kind of thoroughness we’re dealing with:  “Some sources
indicate that the Falcons wore a single white stripe on their black helmets during at least one preseason game in 1990; however, I have never seen a single photograph to confirm this, and I now strongly doubt that this is true.”  Me too.

Finally, there’s the uniform database on Dressed to the Nines: A History of the Baseball Uniform, a searchable online exhibit from the Baseball Hall of Fame.  As with football, headwear is the most interesting place on baseball uniforms for graphics.  Unfortunately, the exhibit browser doesn’t let you zoom in on the hats, but among the special features here are discussions of the history of each part of the uniform, from caps to stockings.  There, we find out that in the 1960s, the Angels hat had a silver halo on top (pictured).  In 1971, that halo shrank and migrated to the “A” itself.  Lucky for the Angels players, officials for Disney—which owned the team from 1996 to 2003—never managed to add Mickey Mouse ears to the design.  But they probably thought about it.

Iconographically yours,

Matthew Mugmon

Read Full Post »

Dear poolside readers,

Believe it or not, before this lazy scholar came to know the pleasures of American Studies, he was a full-fledged Anglicist (or is it Britishist?). Wordsworth, Eliot, Woolf, Forster—I would surely have carried a card if there were one. Don’t worry, I’m not crossing the pond just yet, though I am feeling in a transatlantic mood lately. So I can’t resist sneaking a peak at an archive devoted to a British artifact: the Victorian yellowback, courtesy of Emory’s DiscoverE Database.

A forerunner of the paperback, the cheaply-printed, cheaply-purchased yellowback caught on just as railways were spreading across the country (see the intro to John Plotz’s Portable Property for more on the link for more on this new mobility). The texts included many American works, whose copyrights, a British Library exhibit reveals, were not protected under British law. Too bad for Bret Harte and Mark Twain.

At least one New York firm, though, sensed a marketing opportunity: Beadle & Co., inventor of the dime novel, struck a deal with Routledge to found the “Beadle American Library” to peddle its pulp for the Anglo masses.

The books especially stood out for their lurid covers, like those of Ann Sophia Stephens’s Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter and Esther: A Story of the Oregon Trail.

Apparently, she never met an unlikely heroine she didn’t like. Nor did yellowback readers, to judge by a handful of other covers. If she could be thrown onto the frontier, all the better.

To be fair, the British were fascinated by more everyday American concerns, as well. Take for example Jonathan and His Continent, a Toquevillesque travelogue by Max O’Rell (pseudonym for French author Léon Paul Blouet).

Here O’Rell remarks on the literal battle of the sexes:

“If men may not tar and feather a woman, women occasionally give themselves the pleasure of tarring and feathering a man, which shows once more how privileged woman is in America. On the 12th of August, 1887, the editor of a paper in a little town in Illinois had to submit to this ignominious operation at the hands of about five hundred of his townswomen. His crime was that of having spoken cavalierly of the feminine morals of the township.”

Those looking for a good railway read of their own, however, might best be advised to check out Struggles and Triumphs, or the Recollections of P.T. Barnum. Here, Barnum recounts the meeting of Queen Victoria herself and a member of Barnum’s troupe, “General Tom Thumb.”

“Surprise and pleasure were depicted on the countenances of the royal circle at beholding this remarkable specimen of humanity so much smaller than they had evidently expected to find him. The General advanced with a firm step, and, as he came within hailing distance made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, ‘Good-evening, ladies and gentlemen!’ A burst of laughter followed this salutation. The Queen then took him by the hand, led him about the gallery, and asked him many questions, the answers to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.”

The Butlerian in me want to say something about queerness, disability, and performance, but I will restrain myself. Back to my twenty-first century reading for now.

Yours perusing the paperbacks,


Read Full Post »

To anyone who’s ever read an academic monograph on the beach,

The fiancé and I have relocated to Northampton, Massachusetts for the summer. For the moment, I’m still trying to find my bearings, which mostly means charting the routes between our apartment and every café in a two-mile radius. My friend Katie has also lent me her bike while she gallivants through the physical archives of Europe, though I discovered within a minute or two that I have actually forgotten how to ride (with a  slightly skinned knee to prove it).

It’s too soon to make any grand observations about Northampton or Western MA, but not to search the digital archive for glimmers of the past. So I turn to Digital Treasures, a joint archive of Central and Western MA’s industrial and agricultural history. The pickings are a little slim for Northampton itself, unless you’re a big fan of Calvin Coolidge, who lived and died here. In the photo below, he was spotted building (or at least modeling beside) a go-kart with his son, just a few years before he would head to the White House.

Maybe I’m just hungry, but personally, I’m a little more thrilled by these 1930s images of Holyoke’s A & P. Nothing like a long line of white guy in white pharmacist’s coats to rouse the appetite.

If that leaves you famished, you can also check out the selectively digitized recipes from the McIntosh Cookery Collection, including “Mother’s Buns” from the 1941 community cookbook What the Westminster Men Eat and How Their Wives Prepare It. I’m less sure what to make of Our Pet Cook Book from 1937 published by the MA Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The title suggests Depression-era dishes made for pets, or more grimly from pets. But in reality, like most community cookbooks, it was mostly an assemblage of recipes from the locals.

Still the real star of the McIntosh collection is their elegantly designed New England Chowder Compendium, which allows you to compare wild variety of chowder recipes (corn! oyster! clam!) decade by decade. Here, for one, is the fish chowder recipe from, yes, Our Pet Cookbook. Which raises the important question: would penguins make good pets?

Check back later in the summer for more Western Mass artifacts. For now I’ll sign off with this recording from the Massachusetts State College Glee Club courtesy of “UMarmot.”

Yours in summer garb,


Read Full Post »