Archive for May, 2015

Alumni@Work: Catching Up With Our Former Students, Part V

Ed Woell (PhD, 1997), offers his thoughts on the changing landscape of higher education.

After teaching full-time at the college level for seventeen years and reaching the rank of full professor, I remain deeply grateful and woellindebted to the history department’s faculty—above all Dr. Julius Ruff—for enabling me to pursue a vocation of reading, writing, and thinking: or what I like to call “living a life of the mind.”

My vocation eventually led me to Western Illinois University, where I have taught for twelve years and last year became the director of graduate studies in the history department. I oversee a graduate program with about thirty students pursuing a master of arts’ degree. For the last ten years the number of students in the program has remained stable, for which our department should consider itself fortunate.

Over the same time, however, the number of undergraduates majoring in history at WIU has declined, resulting in the loss of faculty when anyone in my department has retired or moved on. Compounding the losses in majors and faculty is a budget crisis in the state of Illinois, and with it a steep decline in state funding for the public university system. At present our governor is proposing a draconian 31 percent decrease in state funding for higher education for the next fiscal year. Although the state legislature will probably not comply with such a cut, the outlook for disciplines in the humanities at our state universities is bleak. It thus should come as no surprise that morale among many faculty at my university is approaching rock bottom.

Despite such trouble, our work goes on. One of my charges as graduate director is offering the introductory course on historical theory and methods for new graduate students. When I first taught the course last fall, I wanted my students to start the class by confronting what I considered to be graduate school’s most important question: why were they there? To this end I had my students read several essays about career prospects for those with degrees in history. These included not only William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” and Larry Cebula’s “Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot Be a Professor,” but also Stephen Mexal’s “Don’t Be Afraid of Graduate School in the Humanities” and Susan Adams’s “Majoring in the Humanities Does Pay Off, Just Later.” I found the students’ reaction to these readings interesting. Surprisingly, few understood the way academia now works—namely in how many schools have grown reliant on adjunct faculty, often to the detriment of those seeking tenure-track jobs. After being confronted with how much of a longshot becoming a full-time professor is these days, some students adopted the belief that current trends in higher education were only temporary, and the many opportunities to get on the tenure track which had once existed would someday return.

While I cannot share these students’ optimism, I remember what it was like to be in their shoes as I attended Marquette University. In retrospect I realize that a love for history sometimes blinded me from seeing that while higher education offered a promising vocation, it was not immune from larger forces beyond institutional control. I have since learned that like many entities in our globalized economy, higher education is often shaped by cut-throat consumerism, short-sighted political tempests, and the supposed promise of shiny new technologies.

Given this reality, whenever a student comes to me expressing an interest in an academic career, I feel deeply torn in how to respond. On the one hand, I have an obligation to be candid with the student about the dismal prospects for a historian’s career in today’s ivory tower. On the other, I am averse to dismissing the student’s esteem for history, especially in light of how far my own love for the subject has taken me. Beyond this push and pull, though, I must admit to the student that I count myself among the lucky few to be not only a tenured and full professor, but also one who has grown ever more dedicated to the historical discipline through my many years of teaching, scholarship, and service. And I am likely to argue that now, perhaps more than ever, our society needs what we historians do. In doing so, I unwittingly embody an unspoken truth for that student: living a life of the mind—complete with the sense of gratitude and wonder that such a life can cultivate—is still possible, and ultimately well worth it.

Edward J. Woell is Professor of History at Western Illinois University, where he is Director of Graduate Studies. He is author of Small-Town Martyrs & Murderers: Religious Revolution & Counterrevolution in Western France, 1774-1914.


My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner (continued)

n honor of Memorial Day (the traditional date of May 30), and under the assumption that no one can get too much of The Corporal, Jim Marten offers yet another blog on James Tanner.

In February 2012 I posted a blog (“Reflections on a Man With No Feet,”) on a project about a disabled Civil War veteran that became America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014). A couple of months later, in a phone call I reported in another blog (“It will sound rather strange to you . . . “: A Phone Call, A Letter, and the Corporal), a New Jersey woman offered to send me a rather surprising and moving letter from the Corporal to an old comrade. I knew of only a handful of other surviving letters from Tanner, and this small find inspired a poignant paragraph in the book’s conclusion.

So America’s Corporal appeared in print in May 2014—and three months later, out of the blue, an email appeared offering a trio of letters written by my favorite Civil War veteran. Each came from a different period in Tanner’s life. (Although the author of the original email readily sent me scans of the letters, he never answered my questions about his background or his interest in Tanner.)

The first, dated mid-November 1863, was written a little over a year after the Battle of Second Manassas, where Tanner lost the lower third of both legs as an eighteen-year-old Union soldier. Tanner was writing from West Richmondville, New York, his home town jumarten bookst west of Albany, but this may be the period in his life when he was taking a course in shorthand at a business school in Syracuse. He’s writing to a James Sprague of Brooklyn, New York, pleading for news about James’s brother Jonathon, “the dearest friend I had in the army,” and one of the men, Tanner explains, who had carried him from the battlefield as the Union army collapsed around them. Someone had told Tanner that his friend had lost a leg in battle. “Can this be so?” he asked. The slightly older Jonathon had been a friend and a mentor to Tanner, who closed by writing, “Hoping to hear from you soon and to learn where he lost his leg and where bouts it was taken off and also wishing that He who offers the wind to the shore land will in His mercy restore our brother to health.” Unfortunately, Jonathon died of his wounds; Tanner would mention him from time to time throughout his long life.

Tanner wrote the second letter twenty years later, after he had moved to New York and then to Brooklyn, where he served for a number of years as Collector of Taxes. It’s a friendly letter to Arthur Spitzer, an official in the Richmond Customs House who was apparently involved with creating a badge for an organization for Confederate veterans.   Tanner offers some advice about the design and about pricing. He knew what he was talking about—by this time he had served two terms as Commander of the New York state branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (the main organization for Union veterans) and was one of the best-known Memorial Day speakers in the region. He would eventually serve as national commander and his name would be synonymous with veterans’ issues by the 1890s. Tanner also become famous for accepting the end of the war as the end of hostilities between the sections; his commitment to “reconciliation” would lead him to speak at many Confederate veteran events and at the laying of the cornerstone of the controversial Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1912. Tanner’s specific advice is interesting: although Spitzer is working on a badge for a Virginia organization Tanner thinks bigger: he suggests that the badge “should be a badge for all the ex-Confederates.” Rather than using the Virginia coat of arms, “it strikes me that you should have the coat of arms of the Confederacy. I presume that in those days of high hope you indulged in such a trifling luxury.” Tanner managed to be encouraging and a little condescending at the same time; it seems that the Confederate veterans did not take his advice.

The third letter was written six years later, in September 1889. A lot happened in the meantime: Tanner’s rise to prominence in the GAR and in the Republican Party had led to his appointment in spring 1889 by the newly elected President Benjamin Harrison to the prestigious and lucrative position as Commissioner of Pensions. The letter is typewritten in a jazzy, italicized font, on Pension Bureau stationary. Tanner administered thousands of employees and millions of dollars in pension payments (which comprised the largest single item in the federal budget at that time). Tanner’s high-flying responsibilities were short-lived, however: he immediately got into trouble with his superiors, including the president, over certain policies and practices and his ruthless firing of Democratic clerks. This letter was written less than a week after Tanner had submitted his forced-resignation. Yet, as he declared in this fourteen-line note, “the report of the investigating Commission contained no reflections upon my character and integrity.” His only fault—this is one of those “faults” that is really not a fault at all—“is that I was too liberal and too hasty in the adjudication of just claims of needy comrades. On these charges I am willing to be judged by the boys [other veterans].” In fact, the purpose of the letter was to return an application for a job in the pension bureau, since Tanner would no longer be in charge. But he used the occasion to show that he remained unbowed and steadfast in his support for fellow disabled veterans. He would continue to work on behalf of soldiers and, along the way, make a small fortune as a claims agent for veterans applying for pensions.

Although interesting, these letters won’t require a new edition of America’s Corporal. Indeed, they have no real historical significance, other than to further confirm the sometimes conflicting character of the feisty, emotional, patriotic, and often kind Corporal Tanner. They do, however, prove the truism that the sources we have at hand for any given project are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of sources that were lost, burned, hidden, or otherwise denied to posterity. Yet we soldier on, and when we’re lucky we get to write about guys like The Corporal, these letters let me spend another hour or two with him.

Jim Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  You can find out more about America’s Corporal at ttp://

Alumni@Work: Catching Up With Our Former Students, Part IV

Today we feature two of our PhD alums, Enaya Othman and Paul Beck. Although both teach in the Milwaukee area, they have followed very different paths through academia.

Enaya Othman (PhD, 2009) has found a niche bridging her culture and the larger Marquette and Milwaukee communities.

IEnaya_edited-1 graduated in 2009 with PhD degree in American and Middle East history from Marquette University. My love and passion of history and my belief in its implications for our present and future guided my career path after graduation. Being a Muslim and a first generation immigrant gave me a mission to document my group’s history in the homeland and diaspora. In 1997, when I began writing my master thesis on Arab communities in Milwaukee, I discovered that this group’s history– especially Arab and Muslim women’s history—is underrepresented and mainly unknown. My history degree equipped me to begin the task of documenting the history and contribution of Arab and Muslim communities in the Greater Milwaukee area in different arenas. Soon after graduation, I founded a non-profit organization, the Arab and Muslim Women Research and Resource Institute (AMWRRI) and began to document the community’s history through  oral history. Currently I serve as the President of AMWRRI’s Board of Directors and direct the organization’s Oral History Project. The narratives gathered through the oral history project are disseminated in different ways to overcome stereotypes and misconceptions attached to this minority group. For example, one of the organization’smus1 effective and successful projects was “Beyond the Veil: Dress, Identity and Tradition Through the Eyes of the Muslim and Arab Women of Greater Milwaukee,” an exhibit held at the Milwaukee Public Museum from May to September of 2014. The exhibit caps a four-year AMWRRI project dedicated to showing how the attitudes toward cultural clothing among the Muslim and Arab women of the Greater Milwaukee area go beyond stereotypes. The project also gave women from these communities an opportunity to speak about their experiences. (For more on the AMWRRI and the cultural clothing exhibit, go to

I also work a tenure-track assistant professor of Arabic literature, culture, and history in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Marquette. My teaching has informed my research on immigrant communities and culture, where I have been the principle instructor and curriculum developer for the Arabic language program. I am planning to continue my work of documenting Arab and Muslim women’s history in the United States and abroad and to take an active role in public events and exhibits in order to increase awareness and minimize misconception about this marginalized underrepresented group.

Paul Beck (PhD, 1996), reflects on the myriad changes that have occurred since he entered academia.

Many years have passed since I received my PhD from Marquette. I am now entering my twenty-seventh year as a professor at Wbeckisconsin Lutheran College. I believe that the academic training in history that I received from Marquette has served me well. During my professional career the main thing I have noticed is the changes that have occurred in the liberal arts and in the study of history. More colleges seem to be moving away from the liberal arts and finding less value in programs like history. It seems that every year our department must justify its reason to exist. Our department was once four full-time professors and now we are down to 2.75.

I have noticed a shift in the type of history courses offered. We seem to be losing an obeck bookverall view of history and instead focusing more on race, class and gender. Where once one could expect to find courses on the American Civil War or French Revolution now are offered courses like Jewish Women in 19th Century Syria or 20th Century class relations in New Mexico. We are tending to teach what we find interesting but not necessarily what students need to truly understand the past. I believe there is a place for numerous different types of course but we must also understand that American students know less and less about history and need a solid foundation of informational courses.

Enaya Othman is an assistant professor of Arabic in Marquette. Her most recent publication is “Building a community Among Early Arab Immigrants in Milwaukee, 1890s -1960s,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 96 (Summer 2013).   She is currently revising her book manuscript, called Dogma of Womanhood and Feminism among American Missionaries and Palestinian Between 1880s and 1940s.

Paul Beck earned his PhD in 1996. In addition to teaching at Wisconsin Lutheran, he has published four books: Soldiers, Settlers and Sioux: Fort Ridgely and the Settlement of the Minnesota River Valley; The First Sioux War: The Grattan Fight and Blue Water Creek, 1854-1856; Inkpaduta: Dakota Leader, and Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and The Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864.

Platypi, Hermophrodites, and Intellectual Women: The Humanities’ Relationship with Oddities.

Last month graduate students from the English and History departments at Marquette University organized a day-long conference called “Oddities? : Exploring the Dynamics of Human Constructions.” Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth of Mount Mary University delivered the keynote address, which celebrated the critical ways in which the humanities have led human beings to wonder and to organize the world around them.

While many academics from Plato to Martha Nussbaum have penned arguments for the need and good of the humanities, there is still a resistance in some segments of society to these arguments. Perhaps the problem is that the humanities is considered (and often considers itself) to be a study of human cultures, thoughts, constructs—about language games and hegemonies and matrixes. And thus, some believe that the humanities are not about the real world.  There is a problem that many outside and inside of profile_hockenbery-jenniferthe humanities believe these disciplines cannot help those in the “real” world because the humanities deal only with the “idea.” Yet, in defense of itself, the humanities can argue for its relevance by proclaiming how it treats oddities.

Oddities are things, structures, ideas and people that defy our fundamental categories of thought in ways that distress us.  Oddities are those things that cause us so much trouble that we must cry out in order to name them as “freaks.” We cry out because the oddity is a problem that threatens our very structures of thought and all that we have built on the foundations of those structures. Oddities are terrifying and anxiety provoking because they show us that something is wrong in our thinking.

The platypus so bewildered English scientists that they proclaimed it a hoax for 100 years. Today the platypus continues to force zoologists to re-imagine the taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus. The platypus is an oddity. The body of the hermaphrodite has challenged the way culture categorizes the male and the female. Such a body troubles our deeply gendered worldview. It is an oddity. The existence of the mind of an intellectual woman has historically plunged individual women into despair and caused revolution in societies. It is still, too often, seen as an oddity.

The problem with oddities is that by being odd they crack our structures of thought. They cause despair because we recognize how little we know, how little we may ever know. In some ways, they undermine the possibility of progress and any argument about the merit of the academy.

Yet, here is my thesis. While oddities perplex society and cause despair about the relevance of trying to know anything with clarity, these very same oddities bear witness to the power of study, observing, thinking, analyzing, and discussing. The oddity that troubles our categories gives hope that there can be knowledge beyond cultural categories.

Yes, the humanities have worked hard to bring a humility to the academy and the public about the limits of human knowledge and the power of bias and hegemony. Yet, the humanities can still attest to the need for continued thinking by pointing to research on an oddity and to the cultural openness that results from such research. Research and writing on an oddity breaks the cultural contact lenses. It unstrings the web of belief. The reality of the oddity shines through the broken shards of the fallen hegemony. Importantly, the academy and the public must work together to find a new paradigm and social structure that acknowledges the oddity. Our communal knowledge grows and our society progresses.

Yes, growth in knowledge can change social and political reality as well. A little over one hundred years ago a group of School Sisters of Notre Dame decided to build a college for women in Wisconsin. While the United States did not grant women full citizenship or equal political and economic rights, the SSND believed that intellectual women were real. They asserted that women had the same rights and responsibilities to seek higher education as men. Moreover, they asserted the possibility of intellectual working class women as well. This view challenged dominant strains of thought about the potential of women and continues to challenge the dominant strains of thought about the potential of poor women. But the reality of the intellectual women that have graduated from Mount Mary University continues to tear at those strains of thought. And society slowly reforms.

This is my point. The oddity is unsettling. The first time we see an oddity, we often consider it a hoax. We try to stuff the oddity in a category, or we try to eliminate the oddity. But sometimes we do not succeed in snuffing out the oddness or the oddity. Rather sometimes we come to a new relationship with our old way of thinking, a new humility about our ways of seeing, and a new pride in our ability to see.

Thus, oddities suggest that the post-structuralists may be a little bit wrong. It may imply that any epistemology that considers the mind to be radically independent of matter may be wrong. Perhaps, we need an epistemology that considers the mind to be part of a relationship with matter itself and with Truth itself. But that is another topic for another paper.

For now, I only want to make the claim that we can see the platypus not just as fine pelt to put on the global market but as an oddity that simultaneously humbles zoo-ology and exalts the merit of study. Also, we see the intersex person, not just as sideshow object to exploit, but as a person whose needs require we re-think our medical practices, Olympic policies, and marriage laws. Finally, we recognize intellectual women, not just as workers in a global economy but as fellow members of the academy striving for progress in human knowledge. These changes, this progress, is due, at least in part, to the work of scholars in the humanities who have brought the platypus, the hermaphrodite and the intellectual woman into focus. In short, studying an oddity inspires us to keep looking to see what else we can see. Every oddity that perplexes also whispers: keep studying, keep writing, keep reading, keep thinking. There is so much more to know.

In conclusion, I recently attended a lecture by the Reverend Dr. Willie Jennings, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, on the role of the academic in public life.   Jennings, the author of the acclaimed The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, said the role of the intellectual in public life is to “exhibit an openness to being changed and to invite others to this openness to being changed. To embody a posture, and to model this posture of openness.” (Willie James Jennings. “The Public Vocation of the Religious Scholar.” Upper Midwest Regional Meeting at Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. April 17.) One way to model such openness is to look for and embrace the oddity that defies our previous structures.

Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth is professor of Philosophy at Mount Mary University. She is editor of The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition (2011) and author of the forthcoming Thinking Woman: A Philosophical Exploration into the Quandary of Gender. For more, go to

Alumni@Work: Catching Up With Our Former Students, Part III

Rick Herrera (PhD, 1998) describes the several phases of his unusual career.

My path has been a bit of an adventure. In 1998, I’d hoped to land a position at a liberal arts college that focused on teaching—I wasn’t all that interested in researching or writing. I began at Texas Lutheran University in 1999, where, because of my previous experience as an army officer and sales representative, I was soon made chair as an untenured assistant professor. The old saw about leading academics and herding cats is true. After two years I moved on to Mount Union College, where I was tenured and later served as director of honors until December 2005. I grew tired of devoting most of my time to teaching; I’d discovered that I wanted to research and write after all and needed a bit of a career change. In January 2006, I left Mount Union and took a job on the Staff Ride Team, Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff CollHerrera Seminar 2 at Vicksburgege (CGSC), at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. (Staff rides are used to teach leadership and decision making through historical and terrain analysis while walking and discussing the course of a battle on the actual terrain.) Over the next six years I travelled to over one hundred battlefields in the United States, France, Italy, and the Netherlands where, I researched, designed, and led staff rides for audiences ranging from presidential appointees to generals and soldiers down through noncommissioned officers. I enjoyed staff rides, but wanted to return to an academic environment. In January 2012, I accepted a position at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), CGSC, where I teach graduate-level courses on operational art to field-grade officers from the army, sister services, allied forces, and other US government agencies. For more on the SAMS, go to

I’m now back in the classroom as an associate professor of military history, where I’m enjoying teaching some of the very brightest officers in the armed forces and getting the opportunity to research and write. I’ve published several articles and chapters9781479819942_Full over the past few years. My first book, For Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861, was recently published by New York University Press. I’m now busy researching and writing my second book, an examination of an important, but little studies aspect of the Valley Forge encampment. Recently, I spent February 2015 at the David Library of the American Revolution as a residential research fellow and have since been awarded a Society of the Cincinnati Scholars’ Grant, both in support of the ongoing book project. This summer I’ll be in England and Scotland doing further research. In addition to teaching and writing, I’ve also been active in the Society for Military History where I serve as a trustee of the organization. I’m also a consultant for the Leadership Institute, The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Seventeen years ago, I had no idea that my career would follow the path that it has. I’m glad it did.

Ricardo A. Herrera receivHerrera SMH 2015ed his PhD from MU in 1998; his dissertation was “Guarantors of Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier and the Military Ethos of Republicanism, 1775-1861,” directed by Robert P. Hay. A revised version of that dissertation has recently been published by NYU Press as For Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 817 other followers