Tag Archives: UVA

Why Mince Words?

I do not have Screen shot 2014-03-15 at 6.53.45 PMmuch to say about the notion of black Confederates. Kevin Levin handles that topic well enough at Civil War Memory. But I saw this brief clip featuring my mentor, Gary W. Gallagher, while perusing Kevin’s site and felt compelled to post it here. I think Gary drives the point home in good order…in his usual direct fashion. Yes – the idea that the Confederate States of America enlisted thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of black men as soldiers is indeed demented. You can see why I enjoyed working with him so much when I was at UVa.

With compliments,

Tweeting from the Hallowed Halls

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 6.26.36 AMTwitter. The good news is that scholars and educators world wide have embraced the social media giant with gusto. The bad news is they aren’t doing a particularly good job at it. Well, many aren’t anyway. There are a few out there who seem to really understand the platform and have used Twitter effectively..in ways that will have some sort of lasting significance.

You may be asking of what I speak. You may also be thinking that I should mind my own business. You may just want me to go to hell. Well, I have been threatening to write a short piece on how Twitter and those in education (not just historians) can make a meaningful splash on Twitter now that so many have waded in neck deep. And yes…people have asked me to do so. So here you go.

The trouble as I see it is that academics and others in education have misunderstood the platform. They have overlooked the “social” part of social media. Academics have largely used Twitter as a broadcasting platform; they have created an environment of endless links to other sites, news stories, announcements, and personal updates with little interaction. In a sense, though not entirely analogous, this is what happens on celebrities’ promotional Twitter feeds. Or even worse…it’s what clumsy salespeople do to awkwardly promote their products and services. In short: it’s advertising. And one other thing…(and this applies to Tweeters across the board) what’s with all the inspirational quotes? Stop it.

Is broadcasting beneficial? Is it useful? Yes and yes. On both counts – of course it is. My own Twitter regularly broadcasts information about my latest blog posts (it’s all automated) and any scholarly activities that I am working on. In addition, I regularly Tweet interesting information that pertains to well, just about anything, but usually relates somehow to history specifically or education in general. But that is only a small fraction of what you will find on my Twitter feed. And ultimately, none of the broadcasting is at the heart of what I am trying to do.

Twitter is about conversations. And this simple notion is unfortunately lost on most users. In academia, these conversations could easily be meaningful and function to serve the greater good – or if you like, build on the (sort of) altruistic activity of adding to the wealth of human knowledge. But let’s be honest here, altruism aside, these conversations can serve to build one’s personal reputation. While some may want to keep their Tweets private, as it were, most of us don’t. And thus, here we have the opportunity (yet unrealized in most cases) to let the world know that we have something to say. And what’s even better…we have the platform to listen and engage with others who, not incidentally, might also have something important to say. See how this works? And if Tweeting can somehow be personally beneficial – then all the better. Reality check – there is an element of self-promotion (or brand awareness) infused in every Tweet. Don’t try to deny it.

No matter how you slice it, Twitter should be a great virtual gathering spot. It should be the Internet cocktail party, the online post-conference hang out session. It’s where we should go to exchange ideas or create new ones. But unfortunately – it’s not. The dull broadcasting of information (and little else) offered by academics and educators may be the greatest missed opportunity in modern education.

Case in point: the other day my  University of Virginia Alunmi Association Magazine arrived in the mail. I flipped through and found an interesting article about Allen Groves, the UVA Dean of Students. By all accounts, Dean Groves is a genuinely caring man and an asset to the University. I look forward to meeting him one day.

To illustrate the Dean’s popularity, an insert – Ruling the School – proclaims that Groves is popular on social media and has over 6,000 followers on Twitter compared to Duke’s dean of students, who has a meager 22. Well, the magazine failed to provide Dean Groves’s Twitter handle (well, played, editorial staff) but I did a little digging and sure enough, there is Dean Groves and his 6403 (as of December 2013) followers.

But nothing is really going on. Here is a golden opportunity for Dean Groves to speak directly with a clearly engaged student body and thousands of alumni. And it is just not happening. Instead are a number of Tweets linking away from Twitter, showing campus pictures, congratulating athletes, and forwarding UVA announcements. Let me go on record as saying that this information is perfectly welcome. I would be surprised if someone in his position did not Tweet along these lines. But the crucial element is missing. There is no conversation to speak of. Groves only follows a handful of people (less than 150), which indicates to me that he is not really interested in conversing with his audience at all. I can see no response, no dialogue, no questions, and no answers.

I ask Dean Groves, in the most respectful manner that I can muster, to reconsider how he uses this revolutionary platform. Imagine, if you will, what could be done on this public forum in terms of enhancing the student experience. In the article, the author (Michelle Koidin Jaffee) mentions that you are outspoken in support for students of various backgrounds. Great! Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be involved in a meaningful conversation about this profoundly important topic on Twitter?  Think of what might be accomplished. And let’s look beyond that. Consider how such a conversation could bring prestige to the University. Think of what a mutual exchange of ideas could do for our Academical Village in terms of….academics. The potential here is really quite unprecedented.

But most importantly, I extend these thoughts and considerations to everyone involved in education and scholarship (historical or otherwise). What can we do to make Twitter less of a virtual bulletin board and more of a community for interaction, debate, and the simple exchange of ideas?

Your comments are welcome.

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,