Speaking of Sneakboxes

As I wrote previously, the LESLEY Documentation Project was born in part of my desire to revisit the kind of fieldwork that got me excited about doing history in the first place.  What I didn’t know when the idea first got legs, however, was that LESLEY is a sneakbox.  Sneakboxes are funny little boats, perfected a century and a half ago by waterfowlers tired of mucking about in the New Jersey Pine Barrens’ marshy littoral.  Although LESLEY is much larger and much more refined than its work-a-day cousins, its bulbous hull and crowned deck recall the type perfectly.

It also happens that I absolutely love sneakboxes.  For me they recall the summer I interned at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture (the summer before I first visited the Independence Seaport Museum, for those of you following this thread).  It was a transformative time, one that I’ve described here as priming me for the culture wars.  But it was also the summer that I first met the sneakbox.

My charge at the AFC was to create a finding aid for researchers seeking collections related to boatbuilding.  The American Folklife Preservation Act (1976), which created the AFC, had generated considerable support for ethnographic folklife projects all over the continent.  Thousands of hours of audio recordings poured in from everywhere.  There were interviews with  Apalachicola watermen, Rhode Island quahog diggers, Georgia fishermen, and of course, New Jersey sneakbox builders.  I listed to them all that summer, sitting in the AFC, headphones on, half asleep and half mesmerized by the hypnotic normalcy of people describing their daily lives.

By the end of it, I had worked up a pretty good guide to all the AFC’s various bits and pieces of audio that had anything at all to do with boatbuilding.  It was the bits about sneakboxes, though, that fascinated me most.  I had never heard of a  sneakbox before, but the idea of a tiny boat that could sail anywhere–even over ice–captivated me.  And there was something too about the sneakbox recordings.  Narrators like Theodore “Ted” VonBosse spoke about these boats with a powerful fondness, as if speaking about home, or recalling an old friend:

Much to my surprise, it turns out that all of the recordings I picked through that summer have recently been digitized, by an entire corps of AFC interns no doubt.  What a sensation to encounter these voices again.  They take me back to the AFC during those days before digital audio gear.  Back when the Enola Gay was ground zero.  Back before I had any inkling that a summer internship could turn out to be so valuable.

On Boats and Ideas and Stepping Away

There is a framed black-and-white photograph in my office that depicts Tim White, a former head of the Workshop on the Water at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, fitting a centerboard case into a wooden boat under construction in his shop. I took the photo myself way back in 1995 while doing field research for my undergraduate thesis project. It captures at least two moments. One is evidentiary: a simple act of boatbuilding. The other is more oblique: a young photographer in a strange city, excited by ideas, fascinated by boats, and emboldened by the documentarian’s gaze.

Tim White in the Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995.

It was that second moment—not the first—that I went hunting around for in my old field notes sometime toward the end of my first year on the tenure track. I had come full circle, landing back in Philadelphia after years away. And yet, life and work in the university hadn’t turned out to be quite what I hoped for. Despite some bright spots, I found myself pretty quickly surrounded by unclear expectations, combative colleagues, and worse than crippling bureaucracies. Disciplinary orthodoxies turned out to be far more entrenched than I had suspected. More broadly, the in-crowd hierarchies that prevail across academia wore deeply on me, and still do. I found it harder and harder to recall what it was like to be excited by ideas, to be fascinated by anything, to be bold.

The photo of the boat shop, I hoped, would be a reminder, encouragement to revisit the things and places that had put me on this course years ago. And so it was. Before long I had reacquainted myself with the Seaport Museum, finding there colleagues who remain today among my most valued. I even dusted off some old boat research and found a few new projects along the way.

But the most important memories buried within that old photo had less to do with WHAT ideas excited me back then, than with HOW I got excited about ideas in the first place. I thought about the museums that thrilled me when I was a kid. I thought about how much I loved woodshop in high school. I thought about learning to do field research at the American Folklife Center and with the National Park Service. And I thought about professors I had respected for abandoning the classroom whenever it made more sense to show students how things work than to tell them.

Since then I’ve sought in my teaching to flee campus, or at least to get out of the classroom, whenever possible. I’ve tried it all: fieldtrips, outreach, partnerships, scavenger hunts, bus rides, walking tours, digital meet-ups, throwing pots, really whatever it takes. This semester I’m pushing further by staging an entire semester of course meetings at, where else, the Independence Seaport Museum. More than two decades since taking that photo of Tim White in his shop, I’m returning to the same spot with my own students to stage the LESLEY Documentation Project. Tim’s not there any more, but the boats are, and so is the shop, and amid all of it we’re getting excited about ideas that are all but impossible to conjure in the stubborn fixity of a seminar room.

The modern American university is a difficult place, run through with contradictions and inequity. Much that is good remains there, but I’ve become convinced that to find it we must step away as often as we can. Doing so, in my case anyway, amounts to an act of self-preservation. And for my students, especially in this age of anger and anxiety, learning to preserve ourselves may just be the most important lesson.

Seth Bruggeman interviews Tim White, Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995. Photo by Chad Mahood.


A bibliography of the rise, fall, and rise of my excitement about maritime pasts:

Adrien Segal: On Skill

AdrienWeb1Adrien Segal is a data sculptor, which means precisely what it suggests. In her hands, commonplace climate measurements yield sumptuous forms, often in carved plywood, which conveys in its figurative stratigraphy the ebb and flow of nature. The digital sophistication of her process, wherein Segal translates large data sets into contour lines that are then mapped onto and cut from plywood, can nettle traditional wood artists. As Segal explains it, they think that “you just push a button and it cuts it out for you.” And yet, as she points out, one need look no further than Auguste Rodin to discover that the mathematical extrapolation of data points onto sculptural molds is a time-honored tradition. It’s just one in an arsenal of skills that Segal deploys toward making art that matters. “Data [is] just a resource,” Segal explains, “for … creating narratives about the time and place in which we live.”

Segal’s path to data sculpture began in the furniture program at the California College of the Arts. While there, she was captivated by the ruins of Sutra Baths, built over a century before along the beach beneath San Francisco’s famous Cliff House resort. She was also inspired by data visualization pioneer, Edward Tufte, whose work encouraged her to imagine how the tidal action at Sutra Baths might be rendered in wood. Segal pored over Bay Area tide charts and replicated their data patterns in ribbons of bent steel arrayed across a walnut table. The result was Segal’s thesis project which, as she recalls, was “really well received,” and sold soon thereafter to a collector.


[Click here to hear Segal discuss nature and process.]

The economic calamities of 2008, however, conspired against aspiring wood artists. Segal scraped together a living variously making cabinets and waiting tables. Internships, artist residencies, and work trades sustained her along the way, and introduced her to Oakland’s Crucible industrial arts school where she’s currently headquartered. Her fascination with data sculpture flourished all the while. In 2012, Segal exhibited in Marfa, Texas along with other prominent data artists. The show earned her national attention and brought Segal into a small circle of fellow travelers, including Loren Madsen, who pioneered data sculpture during the 1970s. Madsen identifies Segal as one of a very few young data artists working today in three dimensions.


[Click here to hear Segal discuss skill.]

And yet, Segal is quick to assert that she’s not interested in art for art’s sake. “What is the point,” she asks, “of making art that doesn’t question bigger ideas about our time?” The idea that Segal is most concerned to question is the tendency in science to conceive of humans and nature as distinct. According to her, “we are a part of the environment and intrinsically tied to it.” Segal’s distinctive digital technique therefore aims to blur the line between our experience of nature and nature itself. But digitization is “just another tool,” according to Segal. “You have to … keep learning new skills.” Segal’s quest for skill speaks to the difficulty of her work, and the rigor of her vision. It also betrays a furniture maker’s pragmatism: “you can always rely on those skills,” she reminds us, ”to make functional things.”

Zina Manesā-Burloiu: On Risk

zinaweb1If we accept David Pye’s oft-stated claim that risk is an index of workmanship, then Zina Manesā-Burloiu easily ranks among the most accomplished of wood artists. The dazzling swirls of hand-chipped facets and micro perforations that characterize her work epitomize Pye’s notion that risk inheres in the abandonment of guides and other tools of standardization. And yet, Manesā-Burloiu has risked considerably more than imprecision on her path to becoming an internationally known wood artist. Coming up amid the twilight of Romanian Communism created unique opportunities for the artist, but also confronted her with considerable challenges. Through it all, Manesā-Burloiu has kept close her faith in destiny and a love for wood and tradition imparted by her family.

Manesā-Burloiu first encountered wood carving as a young girl in rural Romania, where she carved intricate geometrical patterns into the soft bark of tender walnut shoots. Though mere “play,” in her words, passing time this way amid the slow pace and scarcity of Communist-era village life honed her attention to detail. “Tradition,” she recalls,”was more important because of the way of life.” A traditional agrarian life, however, was not what Manesā-Burloiu wanted for herself. Mechanically inclined and with a talent for math, she left home at age thirteen to study engineering in the city. Manesā-Burloiu supported herself through high school and, later, university, by working mornings in a truck factory and studying by night. It was in the factory, in fact, where Manesā-Burloiu learned to make edged tools like the carving knives she uses today. It was one step toward a career she had not yet imagined.


[Click here to hear Manesā-Burloiu discuss her work.]

And then came 1989. Romania’s leaders succumbed that year to the wave of revolution that would topple Communism throughout much of the world. Manesā-Burloiu reached out to an uncle who had spent decades imprisoned by the old regime. He had mastered traditional Romanian wood carving techniques while in prison and, after the revolution, Manesā-Burloiu became fascinated by his work. “I fell in love with his house and his carving,” she recalls, “I wanted to do that too.” Her uncle chafed at first, resisting the notion that women should carve. But soon Manesā-Burloiu was helping him with his work and, in turn, learning her art from a master craftsman.

Manesā-Burloiu began showing her work—including spoons, cups, egg holders, and candle sticks—at Romanian craft fairs, though a corrupt jury system and relentless traditionalism frustrated her. ”I was almost at the point [of] giving up wood carving.” And then, in 1997, destiny intervened. Albert LeCoff had been searching for traditional Romanian wood turners and discovered Manesā-Burloiu’s uncle through an acquaintance. LeCoff invited him to visit the United States on behalf of the Center for Art in Wood, and to bring Manesā-Burloiu along as a translator. When the two arrived, however, LeCoff was surprised to discover that neither were actually wood turners. And yet, their work was so impressive, LeCoff sponsored their participation in a host of events. Before long, Manesā-Burloiu was in conversation with the nation’s leading wood artists, and developing a reputation of her own. “It was a mistake,” she says, “that changed my life.”


[Click here to hear Manesā-Burloiu discuss her method.]

It was not, however, a change without risk. In 2001, despite the vagaries of Romania’s fragile economy, Manesā-Burloiu left her factory job to pursue wood art full time. “Making a living from [wood carving] is my dream,” she says, “but when you live it, it is not so easy.” The market for wood art in Romania, for instance, forces Manesā-Burloiu to be more stylistically traditional than she’d like. Travel presents challenges too. Manesā-Burloiu had planned on being in residence at the Center during 2013, but was delayed for two years by a visa mishap. Now that she’s here, Manesā-Burloiu admits that “Philadelphia is the love of my life!” For her, the city is a place of inspiration and transformation. And the ITE residency, she explains, ensures both.

For more, see David Pye, “The Workmanship of Risk and the Workmanship of Certainty,” in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Julia Harrison: On Looking


Click here to hear Harrison discuss imagery in her work.

Look long enough at Julia Harrison’s work and you may feel like you’re staring. That is, in fact, precisely the point. Harrison explains that “the act of looking really hard at another person to try to figure out what the hell they are thinking or feeling or talking about is a universal thing.” It’s a theme most immediately evident in the pursed lips and oblique eyes that appear specimen-like in Harrison’s hand-carved brooches and wall sculptures. Though these pieces invite our gaze, the ambiguity of their expressions unsettle us into considering what it means to look and to be looked at. “The specifics are different,” she adds, but “the grasping for understanding is everywhere.”

The playful reflexivity of Harrison’s fanciful body parts reveals a mingling of art and anthropology. Professionally, Harrison wears both hats. She was inspired early on to study the anthropology of craft, but was frustrated by the tendency of ethnographers to ignore processes by which objects get made. A two-year stint studying traditional needlework among Minnesota’s Hmong refugees allowed Harrison to explore linkages between craft technique and the rhythms of daily life. The experience was formative, and it encouraged Harrison to turn her anthropological lens on another favorite topic: sweets. In recent years, she has blogged, mapped, and exhibited research into the complex web of cultural forces that sustain our global appetite for sugary foods and fantastic confections.


Click here to hear Harrison discuss looking.

Looking also figured prominently in Harrison’s path to wood art. Although formally trained as a metal artist, Harrison warmed to carving wood while studying conservation science in England. Previous experiences with basswood had been unsatisfying, but carving small objects from aged boxwood was different: “I could get it to hold all of these tiny details.” Harrison next traveled to Japan, boxwood in tow, and acquired tools suitable for working in a small apartment. She recalls being surrounded by Japanese wood art. “My first teacher was just going and looking at things … and trying to imagine, if this is what the carving looks like now, what kind of shaped block would it have come out of.” Learning by looking enabled Harrison to engage Japanese artisans through careful acts of observation.


Click here to hear Harrison discuss materials.

Years of travel explain the prevalence of small objects in Harrison’s body of work. “I had to have things that were really really small, really durable [and] I had to figure out ways of making things more engineered than they look.” Even more significantly, Harrison explains, she had to learn to work “subtractively.” “Even if I was having a bad day … I could look at those wood chips and think … at the very least it’s getting more portable.” The press of travel, however, has preserved within Harrison’s work a material record of the artist’s journey. Bits of wood gathered here and there “become part of the story,” she says. And new places invite new techniques. Turned paintbrushes and miniature dirigibles highlight Harrison’s run with the lathe in Philadelphia. New directions for an artist who is always looking.

Grant Vaughan: On Place

“When I’m thinking about things to do,” explains Grant Vaughan, “I’ll go for a walk in the bush.” He doesn’t have far to walk. Vaughan hails from New South Wales, Australia, where he lives on eighty-five acres of bushland. Although his work has shifted over the years, variously between sculpture and furniture making, all of it in someway bears the imprint of Vaughan’s love for the landscape that surrounds him. Most telling in this regard are the loping spheres and crisp edges that unfold like leaves from his carvings.



Vaughan grew up amid the scattering of small towns west of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. Though he briefly studied engineering and architecture at the University of Sydney during the 1970s, the swirl of excitement surrounding Australia’s burgeoning youth counterculture lured Vaughan away from school and deep into the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. It was there that he first experimented with wood carving and furniture making, despite having no formal training. “I had my plane blade in upside down for twelve months!” But with time, and guidance from an early mentor, Vaughn began hand-carving organic forms in tables and mirrors, all inspired by his fascination with nature and a taste for Art Nouveau.

All the while, a revival of interest in hand-crafted furniture had created new opportunities for wood artists in Australia. Vaughan joined the Woodworkers Group of New South Wales and began showing his work regularly throughout Sydney, including at a landmark show in the Sydney Opera House. “That went really well,” he recalls, “I was getting so much work, I couldn’t keep up with it.” Vaughan’s success inspired new creative directions, including a bowl he carved for the Opera House show that prompted a flurry of interest throughout the international woodworking community. Furniture, however, remained Vaughan’s mainstay for many years and sustained him with commissions, including for an elaborate set of exhibit cases showcased in Austrailia’s Parliament House.

IMG_4200 copy


Vaughan’s late return to carving owes, in part, to a broadening appreciation of his work in American galleries during the last decade. It’s a shift that he understands within the context of global economies. Sydney’s emergence as Asia Pacific’s financial center has shifted tastes among Australian collectors while raising real threats to the the landscape that nourishes Vaughan’s work. So, though encouraged abroad, working away from home creates real challenges for someone so powerfully influenced by place. “You need to get away,” as he puts it, to “do other things, and come back with a new perspective.” And yet, Vaughan brightens when he speaks about his land and the hundred species of trees he’s discovered there. “Understanding the landscape,” he says, is “about being informed about what you’re looking at.” It’s a conviction that applies just as well to Vaughan’s work and that, in many ways, explains it.

Rex Kalehoff: On Awareness

IMG_4130 Perhaps none of this year’s ITE fellows are more at home in Philadelphia than Rex Kalehoff, who earned a BFA in sculpture from UArts before moving on to RIT’s MFA program in woodworking. As he tells it, Kalehoff’s work is inspired by long travels around the Pacific Rim and a consequent fascination with the power of wood art to connect us with deep pasts and diverse cultures. The prevalence in his work of animal forms and fanciful masks connotes global mythologies and the archetypal Trickster figure.

But Kalehoff draws too on more recent pasts in making sense of his creative vision. “[My] attention to aesthetics,” he explains, “comes from growing up on a boat.” Kalehoff spent much of his early years with his parents, one a musician the other an artist, aboard an elegant fifty-foot wooden sloop. When shoreside, Kalehoff savored his parent’s New York City recording studio, which he recalls being filled with “amazing instruments and amazing musicians.” Within his memory of these two spaces—wherein art, craft, and design coalesced in dazzling arrays of wood—Kalehoff sees the beginning of his artistic journey.


[Click here to hear Kalehoof discuss his artistic vision.]

The journey has not been without its challenges. Kalehoff recalls a long struggle to balance his love of form with a commitment to craft. “There were always those who were telling me … that [my work] wasn’t cutting edge enough, that it wasn’t conceptual.” And yet Kallehoff refused to shift his path, committing himself foremost to creating objects that are well-made and beautiful. Along the way he found inspiration in the work of others, including Ricky Swallow’s meticulously crafted trompe l’oeil wood sculptures, that demonstrated how concept and craft could successfully coexist.


[Clear here to hear Kalehoff discuss awareness.]

If anything, Kalehoff has become even more mindful of method as he’s settled into teaching at Brooklyn’s Makeville Studio. “The teaching I do,” he explains, “is therapeutic because I’m teaching people about awareness … I slow them down.” As Kalehoff sees it, making students aware of shop safety, or even the importance of a square square, promotes self-awareness and a sense of calm. It also encourages innovation. It was just this kind of creative self-awareness that prompted Kalehoff to begin using his bandsaw as a sculpting tool. “I learned it from studying furniture…you can do multiple [small sculptures] the same way you do chair legs.” The proof: a buffet of figurines on Kalehoff’s bench, including six masks, fifteen fish, and as he puts it, “a bunch of hands.”


[Click here to hear Kalehoff discuss tools and technique.]

Chips and Sparks

Today I rejoined my fellow fellows from the Center for Art in Wood residency program, a month since first meeting them.  Only minutes after I arrived, Albert LeCoff–the Center’s director and co-founder–joined us for a studio tour.  Albert asked that everyone browse one another’s work stations and return with an object of particular interest.  We did and for the next hour or so the group discussed what each piece revealed about work processes, artistic goals, choices of material, and other facets of the residency experience thus far.

I learned a lot; and quickly, at that.  Most significantly, I learned how incredibly facile these folks are with their tools of choice.  For instance, Adrien Segal digitized a form that she modeled by hand in clay so that she could then recreate it, again by hand, in plywood.  The confluence of digital and analog techniques reveal impossibly intricate contours in a material that most folks wouldn’t give a second thought to.  We learned from Zina Manes-Burloiu, a master of traditional Romanian chip carving, that after years of making her own tools, she can discern differences in metal by the type of spark it makes.  I find this type of material knowledge–literally, thinking WITH things–absolutely fascinating, and I intend to explore it more during my residency.


Grant Vaughan, a woodcarver from New South Wales, compares Adrien Segal’s clay and wood forms.


Works in progress by Zina Manesa-Burloiu.

Our micro-charrette also reminded me how useful this kind of exchange is.  It’s a type of conversation that, outside of writing workshops, doesn’t happen enough in humanities classrooms: asking about one another’s methods, proposing new ways of doing things, gently nudging one another to explain why it is we do the things we do.  It’s an incredibly useful exercise; one that helps us learn to be critical without being hostile.  And one that makes us realize that sometimes our peers are our best teachers.

A Return to Things

This summer, I’m finally getting back to things. Literally. After a decade or more of casting my lot almost exclusively with public history, I’m delving back—even if briefly—into the world of material culture studies, which once upon a time was my intellectual home of choice. That I even think of these fields as discrete is evidence of how deeply I’ve fallen into academia’s disciplinary furrows. Realizing this, in fact, was what prompted me to apply for a Windgate ITE Residential Fellowship at Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood. The good news is that I got the fellowship! Now it’s time to consider how a reunion with things, and a stint away from the university, might turn up new directions for my research and teaching.

But first, a few words about the fellowship. The Center for Art in Wood opened in 1986 to promote just that: wood as a medium for artistic expression. Its activities, therefore, are wide ranging, and include gallery exhibits, a permanent research collection, and educational programs. This year will be the twentieth that the Center has hosted fellows for its Windgate ITE Residency. Each year the residency brings five wood artists, one photojournalist, and one scholar to the Center to work and live together for several weeks. The culminating event is an exhibit wherein the group shares with a public audience what they’ve learned and made together over the summer.

As this year’s scholar, my job is to embed with the artists for a week and write about what I discover. Presumably I’ll reflect on their work through my particular scholarly lens, but it’s also the scholar’s job to produce text for the final exhibit and for promotional materials. All in all, it’s a fairly straightforward assignment, though with few parameters. So, how to approach it? My first instinct was to begin by reading, to sift through recent work coming out of material culture studies, arts and crafts scholarship, maker studies, and so on. It occurred to me, though, that the very reason I applied for this gig was to force myself away from these paradigms and to step away from the methodological status quo. I needed a way out of the furrows.

So, instead, I decided to build a retaining wall. By way of context, I confess to being a consummate tinkerer, a decent finish carpenter, and not a bad cabinetmaker. I am not, however, an engineer or a landscape architect, though I did promise my daughter I’d build her a swing set despite not having an inch of flat ground to put it on. We’d need a small retaining wall to make it work. What better way, I thought, than to prepare for my fellowship by creating something that would push the limits of my mechanical skills, force me to use new and unfamiliar materials, and require that I think hard about how what I make intersects with the lives of people I care about. After all, aren’t these exactly the types of challenges that my fellow fellows would be grappling with at the Center for Art in Wood?

Perhaps, though I suspect they’ll be considerably more successful than I was. After several weeks and an unfortunate turn in the weather, my “wall” is still just a couple of trenches, some tamped stone, and about a half course of landscape timbers. But, for my efforts, I did end up with more than just a sore back. The new tools I’ve acquired—especially the 3 lb. hammer I can’t now imagine being without—already have me thinking differently about what kind of work I can do, and how to accomplish it. The time I’ve spent toiling in what I once considered a remote corner of our property has fundamentally reoriented my view of our landscape and its relationship to our neighbors. And, of course, doing this with and for my daughter has created a mnemonic marker of sorts. I’ll likely always recall her fourth summer as the one during which I built that damn wall.

Retaining wall project, Summer 2015, with June as gauge for measuring trench depth.

June as a living gauge for measuring trench depth, Summer 2015.

From these observations, then, I cull a set of big questions that have long interested me and will be particularly useful, I think, this summer:

1. Modes of Production: How do the ways that we work with things shape our lives, and, vice versa?

2. Thinking with Objects: In what ways do objects expand or curtail (or both) our sense of possibility?

3. Stuff and Memory: What are the processes that bring memory and objects into symbiosis?

These are old questions, and familiar to anyone who studies material culture, but they’re also remarkably durable and useful for getting situated in any new project.

The retaining wall, however, begs one more question that bears particular relevance to the problem of academic furrows: does doing stuff make us better at thinking about stuff? Obviously I think the answer is “yes,” but I’m eager to imagine ways that we might test the hypothesis in college classrooms, where the alleged crisis in the humanities is premised on the notion that people who study English and History and Philosophy can’t actually do anything. The success of the Center’s fellowship program seems to demonstrate the opposite. How, I wonder, might I bring that lesson back to Temple?

So, there it is, my agenda for the summer: get reacquainted with things, spend some time with folks who take them seriously, and see what I can gather from the experience that might reinvigorate what we do in the classroom.

Then, maybe I can finish that damn wall.

RIP Critical Thinking: A Field Report

More news of weak links in American higher education has made the rounds in recent weeks. Researchers tell us that thirty percent of college seniors are no better at writing or thinking critically than they were as freshmen. This revelation probably doesn’t surprise many of us who work in the academy. Nonetheless, it’s not easy to hear, especially if you care about teaching. And I do. A lot.

It’s because I care about teaching, in fact, that I recently partnered with a school district north of Philadelphia to apply for a Teaching American History (TAH) grant. For those of you who don’t know, TAH grants are competitively awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to help K-12 teachers fine tune their history chops. Big wads of Federal cash support partnerships between school districts and organizations with “content expertise” (e.g. a university history department or a professional association like the NCPH) that, together, work toward improving our kids’ ability to–this is the important part–think critically about history. It’s a crucial program that, of course, is in imminent danger of being cut.

In any event, I offered Temple’s Center for Public History as a vehicle through which to launch what I thought was a pretty smart three-year course of TAH seminars and summer institutes for about 30 high school teachers. Imagine my surprise, however, when I arrived at our first planning meeting to discover that my partner had asked a third party, a professional TAH grant getter, to join our meeting. This had evidently been a last-minute request, born of fears that my partner’s own grant writer and the Center’s collateral expertise might not be enough to get the proposal in on time.

Some background. Almost as soon as the TAH program began in 2001, professional TAH hacks started popping up everywhere. These businesses, with official sounding names like the “American Institute for History and so and so,” are parasitic in the same way tha
t test prep companies like Kaplan are. The test prep folks feed off of the demand created by educational standards that American schools are perpetually unable to achieve by themselves. The TAH hacks feed off of K-12 educators’ inability (perceived rather than real, I’d argue) to gather the time and resources necessary to wade through a cumbersome grant application. The hack makes money by taking a cut of the grant in trade for assembling the application materials and contracting with university faculty who sign on as talking heads.

In other words, TAH hacks write TAH grants and they do it fast and reliably. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The problem is that even hacks have to make a living. Here’s where we get into trouble…

Hacks are good at getting grants because: 1) they’ve got the manpower; 2) they’re fluent in granteese (and regional dialects therein); 3) they assemble reliable pools of cash-hungry faculty, er, content expertise; and, 4) they dress their proposals up with a lot of spiffy extras like client-ready websites with, and this is key in K-12 circles, lots of “free” course materials (e.g. handouts about Ben Franklin and stuff). The hacks are good at getting grants because they’ve put together a strong business model.

There are at least four very big problems, however, with this particular business model. First, it is a business model. In other words, what these folks do is motivated not so much by a commitment to critical thinking (remember the purpose of the TAH grant?) as it is a commitment to, well, staying in business. Second, when a school district partners with a hack, it partners with a business, not a community of historians. This is a bad recipe for ongoing partnerships between school districts and regional colleges and universities. Third, toward improving their odds of securing the grant, hacks design safe programs that emulate past successes. So much for innovative pedagogy. And finally, in our case at least, the hack’s business model demanded a closed shop. If my partner chose to work with the hack, then I and my plan would be…history.

Faced with a choice between convenience and vision, and even though the teachers preferred my plan, my partner chose the hack.

I’m mad about this. I’m mad that my partner sold me out so easily. I’m mad that I invested so much time in developing a proposal that, at best, will be ignored and, at worst, will be co-opted by the hack. I’m mad that the Center, whose interest in this project was primarily intellectual, got outmaneuvered by a hack whose interest was primarily pecuniary. But what really irks me is knowing what my partner will get if the hack’s plan is funded.

An example. I proposed using the grant to help teachers and students curate their own digital (and 100% free, by the way) local history archive in cooperation with several regional museums and historical societies. We even had a cool tie-in lined up with ExplorePAHistory.com. This was going to be a fun, cheap, and fairly innovative way to confront students with hard questions about which parts of our past get remembered, and which do not.

The hack countered with his company’s canned WEB resource. An “award-winning” website packed full of freebies and with all the javaesque glitz of the internet a la 1997. Granted, a crummy WEB site isn’t necessarily the end of the world. It’s how you use it. The hack showed us how to use his. Pointing to a digital reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), the hack demonstrated an interactive feature that revealed flaws in the artist’s rendering. He made a game of it:

“O.k., everyone, what’s wrong with this painting?”

“The sun is shining,” someone offered.

“Good!,” said the hack, “Remember that Washington crossed at night.”

Another someone: “Why’s he standing?”

“Ha,” the hack snorted, “would somebody as smart as George Washington really stand up in a rickety old boat!?”

And so forth. We never got to juicier questions about why Leutze painted this scene seventy-five years after the fact (and in Europe, no less) or why Americans have come to cherish such a “flawed” painting. What’s more, the hack’s larger vision for the TAH grant was as generic as the Leutze exercise—a big one-size-fits-all themes-and-issues-in-American-history routine, even though the school district had specifically requested an emphasis on local history that might help young folks understand the devastating poverty that had overcome its rural coal-mining community during the last generation.

Underwhelming website and limited vision notwithstanding, the brutal reality of this unfortunate episode is that what passes as “critical thinking” among our nation’s TAH hacks and their various educational products seems to be, in this case at least, a vacuous true-and-false game in the myth buster tradition. Difficult questions are traded for platitudes. Teachable moments are lost to content experts whose expertise doesn’t necessarily pertain to the places where school kids struggle to make sense of their own worlds. Teachers never realize that the classroom freebies offered by hacks are freely available elsewhere and that co-authoring new and free digital tools with students requires little more than a few days training. It’s not hard to see, in this light, how long-term gains in critical thinking loose out to short-term profits.

And the American education system stumbles along on its path to oblivion…

So, who is to blame for this problem? The hack? Maybe the Fed’s byzantine grant apparatus? What about all those professors who cash in on TAH gigs without really understanding how the money works, or doesn’t work? The list could go on since, in one way or the other, all of us with a hand in the education game are implicated. My concern, however, is not to point fingers or even to beat up too much on the hack. All of us, after all, are trying to make a living. I’m more worried about how to make my colleagues aware of the impact they have, even if unwittingly, at every level of the American education system. If it’s critical thinking that we want, then all of us must ensure that it’s critical thinking we get. Talk to K-12 teachers, learn what they’re dealing with, leverage your university resources, and create partnerships with these folks that prevent them from having to choose between innovative vision and the promise of convenience.

And, perhaps most importantly, show your advisees that doing history well requires an ethical commitment to doing the best work possible, no matter what the context. We can’t get rid of the hacks, but we can encourage a new generation of entrepreneurial historians to find a better balance between profit and professionalism.