Category Archives: Ask Dr. Harris

Moronic Party Politicking


Screen shot 2014-04-14 at 7.45.27 AMFor my latest installment on how not to be a moron during the next election season I offer you this painfully misleading political meme. Yes, Democrats did indeed write, promote, and enforce Jim Crow laws in the segregated South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One thing that this meme does not mention, however, is that during this particular period the Democratic Party was – hang on boys and girls – the conservative party. Conservatives during this period were quite adamant about keeping black folks in their “place” after the Republican Party (quite progressively, if you ask me) passed a few Constitutional amendments guaranteeing black people basic citizenship rights. In fact, conservatives did everything they could in the post Civil War decades to insure that free blacks were reduced to slavery in all but name. I’ll put things simply if you are not following along: Democratic Party in the nineteenth century = conservative party. Well, that sort of changes things doesn’t it?

For those of you party politickers (on either side) who think you have stumbled on to something clever and can’t wait to embarrass the living hell out of the opposition…I counsel you to think first about context and to consider that history is quite dynamic. Extracting some bit of information from the past and applying it to a twenty-first century situation is well…ahistorical. (and not that clever at all).

With compliments,


You Ask I Answer: Blogging History

Screen shot 2014-01-18 at 10.25.32 AMA few days ago I got a note from long-time reader Casey Turben. He has been keeping up with my musings since way back in the Cosmic America days and saw me speak on blogging at the CWI conference in 2012. Well, Casey has decided to start a blog of his own: The Unruly Historian. As you might suspect I am a fan of the name – and he has some good things to say as well, so check it out. As he is just starting out he has asked me a few questions to help him along. So here you go Casey, I hope this offers a few insights:

-Do you find yourself trying to not be overly academic?

I cringe at the thought of sounding even slightly academic. There may be place for esoteric language and academic density, but the blogosphere is not it. I believe that this medium is ideal for reaching out to and engaging with the informed public – those who do not have (and probably don’t really want) access to the super-special academic club. I want to expand my readership, not limit it.

-How do you cite your work?

I do not. Blogging is a colloquial format intended as a platform for virtual conversation. You would not, for example, offer citations at the end of every sentence or thought if you were engaged in a face to face talk with a friend about a historical event. So I do not do it here either. If I think it is important enough I will mention where I found a particular source (book, archive, etc) in the post. And, if anyone asks, I will happily supply formal citations via email. But I will not clutter my posts with distracting citations. True story: I once received an email from an irate scholar berating me for my lack of integrity precisely because I had not furnished footnotes for a piece I did on Civil War veterans. He demanded (and used strong language) that I immediately supply formal citations.  I politely (well, politely in my own smug way) responded with my standard anti-citation argument and sent him formal citations. The scholar apparently did not get (or bother reading) my email and once again attacked me in a private message – this time implying academic dishonesty. So, I sent them again. And do you know what? He didn’t even say thanks. Jackass.

-Who is your main audience?

As I mentioned above, I write for an informed public. Blogging, coupled with social media, is the bridge between academia and everyone else. There are plenty of people out there who know their stuff (and plenty who do not, but that’s a question for another day). These folks might agree with me, they might disagree, they might simply be interested in what I am talking about and want to join in the conversation. I want to reach them. In this way we are together forwarding historical inquiry. Blogging is then, in a sense, a collaborative effort between writer and reader. The discussions that emerge from these posts, often taking place on Twitter or by email, have helped shape my thoughts on a number of topics.

-Do you net any income off of your work?

Yes indeed. Blogging has led to paying invitations to write, speak, and appear on television. I have yet earned enough to purchase a Porsche 356C but things are looking up and there is more to come. So stay tuned.

Casey – I hope this helped. And good luck with your blog!

With compliments,


Much Ado About Revisionist History

storyAs you must surely know by now (as I mention this often), I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for people discussing America history – usually of the 19th-century variety – but I will have a look at nearly anything that piques my interest. Youtube and Twitter are of course my favorite virtual forums – they never disappoint.

I have noticed something that, as a historian, I find really really really disconcerting. The word “revision” seems to carry a negative connotation. And individuals all over the place hold the so-called practitioners of “revisionist history” with the greatest contempt.

Now this comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Those who finger point and accuse don’t necessarily fall into any easily defined category.

But the way I understand things, people who are screaming about revisionism are kinda missing the point. The words “revision” and “revisionist” have simply been reduced to a code for analytical conclusions that disgruntled would-be historians disagree with. (Bitter??? Table for one).

Here’s the deal my angry f-bomb dropping friends. Revision is what historians do. If we didn’t revise, there would be one history book that would cover the whole enchilada. We would all read it, and that would be it.

Oh sure – historians can write with a bias, and what they write can certainly be a reflection of the times in which they live. But is this by definition a bad thing or something that we simply must come to terms with and be aware of? What we learn about history and historians can tell us a lot about ourselves as interpreters of the past. If you really want to impress your friends at parties – get in to historiography. Now that’s some revision we can talk about. Are there noticeable differences in books written before and after the Vietnam era (to use one sorta obvious example)? You betcha.

But all of that aside, I believe that revision is the essential ingredient to reconstructing the past. New evidence always surfaces somewhere, differing analysis produces thoughtful conversations, new insights lead us to reconsider something we may have thought we knew…but didn’t.

In other words – you can get all bent out of shape if someone challenges your precious beliefs. But instead of dismissing that person as a “revisionist” in derogatory fashion, why not just have a look at what they are saying, weigh the arguments in terms of credibility, see if their evidence holds water. Do you really want to learn anything – or do you just want to hold fast to what could very well be long outdated?

I am open to critique…so fire away.

With compliments,


Harrison Gray Otis and the Burning of the Blue Sulphur Springs Resort


This morning I received an inquiry from a reader who was wondering if I had any information on Harrison Gray Otis’s involvement in the November 1863 burning of the Blue Sulphur Springs Resort in West Virginia. As both Union and Confederate armies had used the resort during the war as a camp and a hospital, Federals wanted to ensure that the Rebs could no longer utilize the structure and surrounding area for their war effort and the resort was fired. Only the Pavilion, a Greek Revival structure, remained.

You may recall that Harrison Gray Otis enlisted in the Union Army as a private and climbed through theharrison_gray_otis ranks to Captain in short order. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed a prosperous career as a journalist and editor. My reader has found information suggesting that Otis gave the order to fire the resort – but cannot verify these reports.

I turn to you – my knowledgeable amigos…did Otis give the command? (we’ll need proof, of course)

With compliments,


You Ask, I Answer: Advice for a Prospective Graduate Student

University_of_Virginia_Rotunda_2006From time to time I will get a note from a former student who is contemplating graduate school in the humanities. They want to know what to expect. I always direct them to a blog post I wrote waaaay back when Cosmic America was a thing. This post got quite a bit of traction…it was retweeted a zillion times (give or take a few) and it even made the AHA website. So I offer it to you, again, but here at Keith Harris history. For those of you who are my former students or who just stumble on this…enjoy. It may offer some insights. And remember…the original post is from July, 2011. Some things may have changed since then. But they probably haven’t.



The other day, I got an email from a prospective graduate student who is in the process of applying to schools, including my alma mater – the University of Virginia. He wanted to know what to expect once he hit the ground (the prospective student shall remain anonymous…so that my colleagues  – one of whom recently described the idea as a suicide mission – don’t try and contact him and talk him out of his rather ambitious endeavor).

I answer here in the hope that others might think a little more about what they are getting themselves in to. I will take on – in my own colloquial style – his questions one at a time. Keep in mind that these are my personal experiences and may not necessarily reflect the experiences of all students in grad school. At any rate, the questions are in italics. And best of luck to you, my anonymous friend.

Why did you decide to pursue your Ph. D. in history?

In the abstract, I have been a history guy my entire life…I wanted to talk about it all the time, and so college seemed the logical course to take. For a more tangible reason…I had a lot of questions that were unanswered but did not have the tools necessary to answer them – at least I didn’t think so. There is an enormous amount of information out there – both primary and secondary – in libraries, repositories, and on the Internet. This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. What on earth was I going to do with it all? How was I going to sort through everything and make sense of it? So I came up with the crazy notion that professional training was the answer.

Can you describe a typical week when school is in session?

I am going to go with year one here – because I found that to be the most challenging. Not to say that things got any easier as I went through the program…there are all sorts of hurdles to cross that will put you through changes (specifically….qualifying examinations). Let’s just say that my first year was a sobering one. I like to describe it as an effort to take a sip of water from a fire hose. At UVA, first year Americanists (and this is typical for many programs) take a mandatory series of courses that bury students deep deep deep in the literature. Contextualization is the goal – making historiography make sense, I suppose. But a week goes something like this: you read, then you read, then you read some more, then you get in some reading, and when you are all done – you read some. I was assigned thousands of pages each week. So guess what – prepare to get some reading in. Don’t take this lightly. It can be (and was for many of my classmates) overwhelming. Keep in mind also, you will be attending classes, writing papers for this primary course load as well as two other classes each semester. Maybe, if you get a minute, you can meet some of your mates for a beer – so you can talk about the week’s reading assignments. Did I mention that you will do a lot of reading? Oh, and one other thing. If you do not have one already, first year graduate students at UVA also write their Master’s Thesis.

Do you have an extra job besides your full-time commitment to school?

HAHAHAHAHA – but sadly, yes. Most students are assigned graderships in their first year and then teach sections from then on. I also picked up a little gig at the special collections library to fill my “spare” time and make some extra money (turns out, this was a good thing. I managed to simultaneously do on-the-job research for my MA). The University places limits on how many hours one can work each week – the logic being: you will not get distracted by work and will be able to focus on your studies. The reality is that the few hours permitted to prepare for section discussions or even grade a stack of 120 mid-term essays is entirely unrealistic. Do not expect to get much sleep.

Are you pursuing any research-related opportunities this summer? Is this typical?

Dude, my advice to you is to go to Cabo. But since you are a glutton for punishment – as evidenced by your desire to actually pursue an advanced degree in the humanities given the current state of affairs – you won’t. Yes, many students, myself included, seek research opportunities during the summer (and holidays breaks as well). There are plenty of them out there depending on your topic, many are funded…some generously (check out Gilder-Lerhman – they made my life very easy when I was researching for my dissertation).

How did you fulfill the foreign language requirement?

At UVA, Americanists are required to “master” one language, Europeanists need two, and the Classics Department insists that you speak and read everything. You will take a proficiency exam your first year, and a mastery exam your second. I dug deep in to the recesses of my mind to recall high school Spanish and the many conversations I had with Latino friends in Los Angeles. Then I studied my ass off to get verb conjugations right (the Spanish Department lets you use a dictionary, so vocabulary is not really an issue).

How much is intellectual diversity explicitly encouraged in the academic community in general and your class in particular? In what ways are certain points of view discouraged within the academic community?

I am going after you on these questions – I give them a C-. Don’t take it personally. After all, you are going to have to develop a think skin. Criticism in grad school can be brutal – from all sides – your advisor (if he or she is any good) will hold you accountable for every word you write, your professors will humble you in ways you cannot yet imagine, and your peers will (or rather, will probably) delight in tearing you a new one, so to speak. In short, your questions make grand assumptions. One, that intellectual diversity is explicitly encouraged and two, certain points of view are discouraged in the academic community. My answer to these problematic questions is concise: you will encounter both, neither, or any combination of the two. All of this depends of any variety of factors…egos, personalities, background, politics…you name it. My experience, overall, was very good. My professors encouraged me to follow lines of inquiry as I saw fit – but, and here is the real nugget, they insisted I produce the goods. Not a single professor (some of the most prominent historians in my chosen and outside fields, mind you) ever tolerated sloppy research. Even what I thought was on the money was challenged, criticized, and punched squarely in the face. My advisor once made me cry. It was pathetic. Let’s just say I went back to the drawing board more than once. But it made me a better historian. For that I am grateful.

Any general advice you wish someone would have told you when you were applying for admission to this program that you would want prospective students to know?

Yes – everything in your life will suffer for this. Your relationships, your finances, maybe even your physical and mental health. On the other hand, you will meet some smart people, develop lasting friendships, and most importantly, you will come out the other end (hopefully) prepared to place your own stamp on the literature – what some smart-ass grad student will come along and destroy in ten years or so.

Best of luck my friend, and always feel free to seek me out if you need further advice!

With compliments,