Monday, April 24, 2017

Studying the Grey Area: Getting to Grips with Islamic History

Rachel Ollis is a junior history and art history double major at SUNY Geneseo. After completing an impressive 16 credits worth of classes on the Islamic world, she is currently serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for Professor Megan Brankley Abbas’s HIST 292: Modern Islamic History and plans to write a senior honors thesis on modern Islamic history next year. Rachel is also a member of the Varsity Tennis team. She is originally from Suffern, NY. 

When applying to Geneseo as a seventeen year old, the list of majors intimidated me. While deciding which box to check, I crossed out math and science because I despised chemistry and algebra. However, this still left me with a big decision to make. I knew history was a subject that excited and intrigued me; on top of this, I had excelled in my high school history classes, including AP history. Although I really was not sure what I wanted to do with my life, I declared the major and hoped for the best. Looking back, I realize it was one of the best decisions of my life.

My freshman year at Geneseo consisted of mostly General Education classes, so unfortunately it was not until my sophomore year that I was able to sign up for my first history courses. That fall, I enrolled in the course, HIST 291: History of the Islamic World from 600-1800. Admittedly, signing up for the course was nerve-wracking because I genuinely knew nothing about Islamic history other than the events of 9/11 and the Iran hostage crisis; like most people, I embarrassingly struggled to place most Islamic countries on a map.

A leaf from the "Blue Qur'an". Ca. 900, Tunisia. [Metropolitan
Museum of Art

In this course, we studied factual material like what year Muhammad received revelation but also explored more complex concepts such as sharia law. We delved into the Qur’an in order to understand how Islamic jurists view polygamy, theft, and the mainstream media concept of “jihad.” We used the Qur’an and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as evidence to challenge our own preconceived notions that Islamic/ Sharia law is inherently violent. By digging beyond the common misperceptions in American society, I realized that I cannot simply listen to the media or politicians and assume their words to be true. As a result of this experience, I now attempt to read and research historical and political topics in order to develop an informed opinion rather than let other outlets dictate my opinions and ideas.

After completing HIST 291 in Fall 2016, I enrolled in four additional courses on the Islamic world. Together, these courses have encouraged me to examine historical events from different perspectives. For example, in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the American embassy and took hostages for 444 days. Most Americans remember this event because of the extensive media coverage and the recent production of the film Argo. However, viewing this event only through American eyes is problematic. When we study and examine the Iran Hostage Crisis through this singular narrative, we forget that, in 1953, the United States government overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran and then allowed for the oppressive Shah to come to power. The American-backed coup does not justify the Iran Hostage Crisis, but remembering this piece of history does introduce a contradictory narrative into our discussions.

A student demonstration in Washington, D.C., during the
Iran Hostage Crisis, 1979. [Library of Congress]

Rather than approaching this event in black and white terms, we studied the grey area, where multiple interpretations and stories exist. These multiple lenses and angles on the Iranian Hostage Crisis allowed me to see the discipline of history as one that has very few universal truths. We are often under the assumption that historians study facts or universal truths; however, I have encountered the opposite through my courses and studies into the Islamic world. As a student who concentrates in Islamic history, I have found that most historical events have an expansive grey area, which requires one to weigh arguments from a multitude of sources and angles.

Grasping these grey areas can be challenging and makes it even more essential that historians consult as many archives and documents as possible; however, these written documents should not be deemed as the truth when attempting to understand grey areas. Those who write history possess personal or political agendas, and this is something academics should note when doing research. When accessing written documents, we need to remember that just because an event or action is not written down does not mean that it did not occur. An example of this can be seen through the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran. Until 2013, there were no files on the CIA overthrow of the government; however, this does not mean that this event did not happen. It is likely that there are also more files on the event that have not yet been released or that some decisions/actions were not put into writing. Lack of written records or unreleased archival records makes it necessary for us to conduct and consult oral history. This style of history enables us to capture and analyze the experiences of the socially marginalized. With no prior experience in oral history, I originally dismissed it because it is not “hard evidence.” Today I realize that not everyone's experiences are found in state archives. As a result, it is crucial that we give voices to the voiceless and internalize them in hopes of challenging state centric Truth narratives.

Shirin Neshat, "Women of Allah",
1994. [Metropolitan Museum of Art]

By understanding multiple interpretations and stories in history, I have come to the realization that very few events in life are black and white. Studying this grey area provided me with the tools to make change within our community. Now, it may not seem like a big deal to attempt to fix things in tiny Geneseo, but that’s where change starts. Currently, I am interviewing members within our Geneseo community who have a personal stake in the “War on Terror.” By interviewing our community members, I strive to give a voice to stories that often go untold. Along with conducting interviews, I recently presented a lesson on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to 9th grade students at Letchworth Central School District.

Sometimes, it feels like, in the undergraduate courses, we merely sit in circles discussing the world’s issues but never do anything about them. Fortunately for me, this has not been my experience. I have had opportunities to collaborate with my professors and fellow classmates on ways to improve Geneseo and then most importantly, we do something about our problems. My personal involvement with these problems has taught me more than any course I have ever taken. The active role I have played has allowed me to become a confident, self- empowered individual. With this experience, I realized that you don’t need to be a politician in Washington to make change, you just have to want to contribute. I see myself continuing to help address problems beyond my years at Geneseo. After graduation, I plan on enrolling in law school with hopes of fulfilling my dream of becoming an immigration lawyer. My law career will not be shaped by the grades I earned in my Islamic history courses but rather by how these courses allowed me stop seeing the world in terms of black and white and start listening to people’s experiences. Studying history has enabled me to become a better person.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

History Department Honors and Awards Luncheon

On Saturday, April 22, the History Department held its annual Honors and Awards Luncheon, in recognition of the academic excellence and civic achievement of our undergraduate students this past year. A number of students were also formally inducted into Phi Alpha Theta, the national honors society for history. Thank you to all the supportive family and friends who attended, particularly those who traveled some distance to be with us!

Attendees filing in to the Luncheon, held in the historic
Riviera Theater in downtown Geneseo.

Professor Jim Williams formally inducts some of the newest
members of the SUNY Geneseo chapter of Phi
Alpha Theta.
Victoria Cooke, recipient of the prize for Best First Year Paper,
and Shreya Srinath, recipient of the prize for Best Analytical Paper.
Eamon Danieu, one of the recipients of the James K.
Somerville Scholarship, pictured with his proud mom.
Prize recipients pictured with Professors Joe Cope and Megan Abbas.
Jenna Lawson, recipient of the DeMarco '30 Memorial Scholarship,
with Isabel Owen, recipient of the Henzel Memorial Scholarship
and the Wachunas Prize.
Derek Kaczorowski, recipient of the Bill Derby Prize, pictured
with Thomas Garrity, recipient of the Beck Prize for
Outstanding Senior History Major and the prize for
Best Senior Experience Paper.

Medieval Banquet: April 21, 2017

Over fifty people attended the SUNY Geneseo Medieval Banquet at the Yard of Ale restaurant on April 21. This event, co-sponsored by the History Department, brought together students, faculty, and community members who contribute to our Medieval Studies minor. Attendees dined on medieval-inspired dishes, were introduced to the love songs of the Middle Ages, and learned how to sing a thirteenth-century round about the coming of spring. It was a wonderful evening, and a testimony to the flourishing nature of medieval studies here at Geneseo.

Many thanks for the generous support of the Office of the Provost and the Departments of English, History, and Languages and Literatures.

Dr. Jess Fenn (English) welcomes the attendees. 

Students Matthew Burley and Noah Chichester prepare to regale
us with song.

Professor Ronald Herzman (English) pictured with some of our
Chamber Singers.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Discussing SNCC and Its Legacy

Earlier this month, the History Department co-hosted a series of panel discussions as part of Geneseo’s annual honoring of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. Civil Rights Campaign veterans Freddie Greene Biddle and Jennifer Lawson, together with Shaketa Redden (Black Love Resists in the Rust, Buffalo) spoke with students about the continuing struggle for African-American rights. Some SUNY Geneseo students, who are currently interns with the SNCC Digital Gateway project, also addressed the audience. 

You can read more about the panels, and about student reaction, in this article in Geneseo's student newspaper, The Lamron.

History major and SNCC Digital Gateway intern Jenna Lawson.

Jennifer Lawson and Freddie Greene Biddle speak with a panel attendee.

Panelists Shaketa Redden (Black Love Resists in the Rust, Buffalo)
and Civil Rights activists Freddie Greene Biddle and Jennifer Lawson.

SNCC Digital Gateway Intern Tanairi Taylor ('18).

Senior History major and SNCC Digital Gateway intern Tom Garrity.

Panelists and Civil Rights activists Freddie Greene Biddle
and Jennifer Lawson pictured with Professor Emilye Crosby.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Facts, Belief, and the "Post Truth" Society: The Value of Majoring in History

Ashley Law is a sophomore history and political science double major at SUNY Geneseo. She is also a member of the Edgar Fellows Honors Program. During the Spring 2017 semester, Ashley has been serving as a Teaching Assistant for Professor Megan Abbas’s HIST 292 course: History of the Modern Islamic World, 1800-Present. She is originally from Cuba, NY. 

There are two different - but equally misinformed - reactions that I get when I tell someone that I am a history major. Either, “wow, that must be so boring,” or, “what could you possibly do with that?” These reactions are indicative of a profound misunderstanding of what the study of history actually is. In my two years as a history major, my classes have been neither boring nor useless; my history education has made me an infinitely better reader, writer, and thinker. The skills that I have acquired in my history classes, of critical thinking, analyzing arguments, and articulating my own unique point of view, have helped me in all aspects of my college life and I believe will serve me well in whatever career I choose to pursue.

When people think that history is boring, it is usually because they assume that it consists of a lot of memorization of dates, events, and people. In college, nothing could be farther from the truth. After almost two years of my history education, I cannot name all 45 presidents in order, and I do not know the dates of the Peloponnesian War. Nor could I name any past emperors of China or tell you what happened on a particular date in the past. What I do know is that history is less about facts than it is about interpretations. Now, don’t get me wrong, facts are crucially important, especially in today’s “post-truth” society. As historians, we all start with a base of indisputable knowledge. But after that ends, the real work begins.

Michal Rovner, "Border #8" (1997-98). Painting depicts
the Israel-Lebanon border. [Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

One clear example of the work of interpretation that historians do that I have come across in my coursework is the creation of the state of Israel. Let’s start with the facts: Palestine was partitioned into Israeli and Palestinian territory by the British in 1948; immediately afterwards, there was a mass movement of population accompanied by violence. And from here, historians move away from the firm bedrock of truth to the shifting sands of interpretation. If you listen to the typical Israeli historical narrative, the Palestinians left the newly-formed state of Israel voluntarily and there were no orders to commit violence against them. The Palestinians, however, claim that there were forced expulsions and ethnic cleansing. Clearly, there is very little in common between these two historical narratives.

So which one should we believe? It’s really up to you. But unlike politics, when someone can make a claim (like climate change isn’t real or vaccines cause autism) without any evidence to support it, historians are held accountable to certain standards. We analyze their sources, evaluate their arguments, and question the motives driving their work to determine whether or not we trust their interpretation. In HIST 292: History of the Modern Islamic World, 1800-Present, we read several historians’ competing interpretations of the creation of Israel. Throughout the course, we were never told what the “right” interpretation was. Rather, we scrutinized these historians and their work to come to our own conclusions. Take Benny Morris, a revisionist Israeli scholar, for example. Morris relied solely on Israeli archival sources to come to the conclusion that, while there was no direct order or master plan to expel the Palestinians, there were multiple incidents of Israeli violence and intimidation. Putting aside his quite radical political views, there are accusations against Morris for being a bad historian. He has been known to decontextualize quotes, make up certain discussions, and manipulate sources. So perhaps his interpretation isn’t reliable. But if you take a closer look, the scholar who accused Morris of these manipulations is a vocal defender of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Do the two scholars’ politics undermine their professional abilities? It is questions such as these that history majors learn to ask in order to come to their own conclusions about what the “truth” is.

Captain Avraham Adam raising the Ink Flag
at Umm Rashrash, marking the end of
the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
 [Government Press Office of Israel]

The misconceptions that history is boring or irrelevant are particularly false when discussing issues like the creation of Israel because these varying interpretations of the past have tangible political ramifications in the present. With hot-button political issues like the Israeli-Palestinian debate, decisions that politicians make based on these misconceptions have profound effects on policy. Whether or not you interpret Israel as an aggressor in the 1948 War directly correlates to questions of Israeli military actions today. As we have seen, these issues are complicated; far too often, discussions by politicians and pundits about America’s foreign policy with Israel ignore the long and complex history of the debate. History, unlike politics, allows for a deeper understanding of issues to provide a clearer path forward. Now that doesn’t mean that by studying history we can solve all of the world’s problems, but with a background of historical knowledge, we can look past the political artifice and see the full picture.

In the future, I hope to pursue a career in government or politics and I know that having this historical background will help me to be successful in that field. I will be able to apply my understanding of the past to policy issues that we are grappling with today. And while I still don’t know exactly what I want to do after graduation, I believe that my history education has given me the necessary tools to succeed in whatever I decide. Majoring in history has been neither boring nor a waste but rather it has made me a better thinker. There is something incredibly liberating in sitting in a history class discussing my own views on how I interpret the past. Instead of being a passive recipient of information, I am an active agent in my education. I can choose what I believe, but I always have to be able to support it. History has taught me to analyze, interpret, and think critically. It taught me to think about and challenge the world around me. And more than anything, it has taught me that my voice, and my opinions, are important. These analytical, research, and writing skills are valuable assets in any career field. And the confidence that comes from coming to my own conclusion and speaking my mind is one of the most important things that I have obtained from my historical education.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

History at GREAT Day 2017: A Sneak Preview

The students and faculty of the History Department have been working hard to prepare for GREAT Day 2017, our annual college-wide symposium celebrating the creative and scholarly endeavors of the students here at Geneseo.

Looking for a sneak-peek of what's in store, historically speaking, on April 25? Check out this list of presentations by history students, who'll be delving into everything from women and politics in late medieval England, to prostitution in nineteenth-century upstate New York, to scientific discoveries in early modern Europe and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

"New York Histories: Tonawandan Economics, Cayugan Removal, and Perceptions of Prostitutes"
Session 1Q (8:30-9:45am, Sturges 108, Sponsor: Professor Oberg)

Brandon Gaylord, "How the Cayugas Became the Only Iroquois Nation Without a Home, 1774-1795”

Caleb Weissman, “Tonawanda: Economics and Interconnection, 1850-1892”

Coleen Cummings, “Constructing the "Social Evil": An Analysis of Prostitution in New York, 1875-1920”

"Research in Gender and Sexuality History I"
Session 1U (8:30-9:45am, Sturges 109, Sponsor: Professor Jones) 

Evan Goldstein, “Modern City, Vice City: Workers, Sexuality, and Social Control in Interwar Detroit”

Derek Kaczorowski, “The Queen City: The Progress of Prostitution within the City of Buffalo during the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries”

Isabel Owens, “From the Shtetl to the Streets: Transforming Jewish Womanhood on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925”

"Edgar Fellows"
Session 2G (9:55-11:10am, Bailey 103, Sponsor: Professor Mapes)

Joshua DeJoy, "Kodak and the Deindustrialization of Rochester"

"Research in Gender and Sexuality History II"
Session 2R (9:55-11:10am, Sturges 109, Sponsor: Professor Jones)

Jenna Lawson, “Cross-Dressing as Comedy in Film and Television, 1950-1999: What a Joke Costs and Who Pays For It”

Theresa Gibbons, “An bhfuil aon bean sa chogadh?: Gaelic, Gathering and Girls in the 1916 Easter Rising”

Erin Sheehan, “History of Vibrators”

"SNCC Digital Gateway and Geneseo: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Past and Present"
Session 2S (9:55-11:10am, Sturges 108, Sponsor: Professor Crosby)

Presenters: Thomas Garrity, Jennifer Galvao, Lauren Plevy, Tanairi Taylor, Laura Brown  

"East v. West: An Analysis of Shenzhen and Western Views on Chinese Capitalism"
Session 4E (3:50-5:05pm, Sturges 106, Sponsor: Professor Jones)

Presenter: Adam Pease 

"History Honors Theses"
Session 4J (3:50-5:05pm, Sturges 109, Sponsor: Professor Cope)  

Jaclyn Carlin, “The Influence of Dynastic Women on the Wars of the Roses.”

Thomas Garrity, “The Virtues of the Coffeehouse Broadsides: The Normative and Practical Public Sphere of English Coffeehouses”

Samantha Misa, “Speaking of Secrets: Secret Codes, Ciphers, and Encryption in Personal Communication”

"Honors Theses: New Perspectives on Jury Discrimination and World War II"
Session 4K (3:50-5:05pm, Sturges 108, Sponsor: Professor Behrend) 

Morgan Weber, “Two Steps Back: The Late 19th Century Retreat of Southern Black Jury Rights”

George Gatzoflias, “Political Cartoons of the Greco-Italian War”

Tim Krol, “September Campaign of 1939”

Poster Presentations
(College Union Ballroom; Sponsors: Professors Abbas, Cope, Jones)

Connor Terry, Liam Collins, Demetrios Giannios, “Newton V. Hooke: The Battle over Intellectual Property and Scientific Knowledge”

Talia Fabilli, Lena Evers-Hillstrom, Carlose Abreu, “Robert Boyle: The Relationship Between Spirituality and Scientific Inquiry”

Katherine Zaslavsky, Rachel Ollis, Isabel Owen, “Voices from the War on Terror”

Jessica Lisi, “Drag Balls, Drag Queens, and AIDS in New York City: How Drag Culture Became a Source of Liberation, Community, and Identity”

Gabriel Ponce, Trajen Cracium, Morgan Weber, “From the Minds of Many: James Joule and the Scientific Social Networks of the 19th Century”

Daniel Wolfanger, Logan Cleary, Maureen Henry, "Patronage in 17th Century Europe: How Tycho Brahe Influenced Johannes Kepler's Research in Planetary Motion"

Friday, April 7, 2017

“Hacking the Middle Ages” from the Students' Perspective

The students in our Spring 2017 research seminar "Hacking the Middle Ages" (HIST 302) collaborated on recreating medieval Paris using digital mapping techniques and drawing on the Description de la ville de Paris (1434). Here they team up again to tell us what they learned about digital history, trial and error in the research process, and group work. 

In “Hacking the Middle Ages,” we created a digital project about Guillebert de Metz’s Paris of the fifteenth century. This collaborative research project took place during the first half of the semester in History 302. Throughout this project, we practiced our research skills and learned how to use various technological components to display the information that we found. Our class used Omeka as our home base for the web page. We also learned how to use Neatline, which allowed us to incorporate various maps into our website. Since these tools were new to us, this project required a lot of trial and error.

For many of us, this was our first foray into the world of digital humanities as well as website building. It’s a whole different ballgame than paper writing, because websites are intended for use by a wide range of people. When it comes to research, it’s one thing to write a lengthy paper, but trying to condense large amounts of information into short, user-friendly and jargon-free paragraphs is deceptively difficult. It forced us to write in a different style because the information being presented had to be digestible for a much larger audience than we are used to when we are writing for a research paper. 

Also, digitally mapping medieval Paris combined in-depth historical research with technology in a way that we had not seen before. Neatline allowed us to link the research that we had done in groups to a map of medieval Paris that we learned how to georectify using a map warping program. The class was divided up into a number of smaller working groups. Each group started with a portion of Guillebert’s writing, and our task was to figure out how to turn that part of the book into a map or some other visual.

So from there we had to research that part of the text in detail, so for instance one group researched all the churches and colleges in medieval Paris that he talked about. Being able to display actual items on the site—like photographs of surviving buildings from the Middle Ages or early modern maps of the city—helped for the material being researched to come alive in a way that simply cannot be replicated in a research paper.

During our research process, we experienced the intricacies and complications that can come with historical research on any subject. Navigating these obstacles allowed us to grow as historians and helped us to gain new knowledge and skill at navigating numerous databases and sites, including JSTOR, Worldcat, and Omeka, amongst many others. We gained communication and time management skills that we didn’t have before. Throughout the process of digitally mapping medieval Paris, the most important lesson we learned is to never underestimate the power of collaborating with others. We have learned that it is acceptable to ask questions and that sometimes it helps the entire group to understand the process of researching better. We learned to view information in a more critical manner, and examine sources with a skeptical eye, in order to ensure the sources are reliable.

The intention that our project will be able to inform anyone about medieval Paris is just one of the great things about the digital humanities; it makes what could be considered specialized information very accessible. It was interesting to be creating something that might hypothetically be viewed by somebody with relatively little expertise in the field, and was a definite change of pace. We are very proud of the end result. As we continue our journey as historians, the methods and strategies we have learned will be applicable to our education in history at Geneseo.

L-R, Back: Tyler P., Danny K., Mary H., Raina S., Carolyn F., Ben G., Maggy K., Eamon D., Nick M., Chris T.
L-R, Seated: Shreya S., Erin L., Nick D., Emily B., Ryanne K. (Not pictured: Nate K.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Denial" Movie Screening and Panel Discussion: April 18

“Denial” is based on one of the most high-profile libel cases in recent years: when David Irving sued historian Deborah Lipstadt in 2000 for writing that he was “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” The ensuing trial, dramatised in this recent movie starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, grappled with issues of truth and how to deal objectively with historical evidence. At a time when “fake news” and “alternative facts” are on the rise, and when public debate seems ever more polarized, “Denial” challenges us to think about our understanding of the past and its legacy.

Join us for this free movie screening and subsequent panel discussion, which will feature Professors Megan Abbas (History) and Justin Behrend (History), and Laura Matthews (Hillel Program Coordinator).

Presented by the History Club and by the Geneseo History Department.

April 18 at 7pm
South Hall 338