Friday, September 19, 2014

On Gift Giving, in the Middle Ages and Today

     The really cool thing about team-teaching with a medievalist, dear reader, is that I get to learn about medieval Europe.  I don't know a whole lot about medieval Europe, but I am increasingly fascinated by that period, especially the "Early Middle Ages," that mysterious and seemingly chaotic period of history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the year 1,000 or so.  So, I have actually been feeling thrills as I read Michel Mollat's The Poor in the Middle Ages.  Mollat leaps around between centuries and uses some pretty crazy vocabulary words (decretal, diaconia, gyrovagues?) not to mention the Latin everywhere, but then he gives us these awesome glimpses into this hazy world of the early middle ages.  I love it!  But I digress.
     We've learned a lot about gift-giving both in the distant past and in the present.  It seems to me that gift-giving was more prominent as a top-down exercise in the Middle Ages, in which kings and aristocrats would give gifts to the people under them as a way of keeping those people loyal.  Now, in an age that prizes equality of people much more, gift-giving is usually considered something that equals do for one another, especially for close family and friends.  But is gift-giving really more equal?  I sometimes give my equals gifts (people in my own generation, usually close family members.)  And I give my parents and parents-in-law gifts.  But most often I give gifts to children, my own and their friends and cousins.  Moreover, my parents, in-laws, and other relatives a generation or more older than me give more gifts and more substantial gifts to me, my wife, our siblings, and our children, than vice versa.  In some families, it seems that older relatives feel it almost a duty to give big gifts to their children and grandchildren.  I am, of course, overlooking major philanthropy: the large grants that wealthy people and families give to the public to use.  But even just within families, is gift-giving really more equal than it used to be?

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Community Service...

     I'll be keeping up with my Oshkosh students in doing blog posts every week or two, in our new community experience course.  This week's topic is community experience, or service, that we've done in the past.  This is a nice way of reflecting on things we've done to benefit our community before we start doing some of these things as a part of this class.
     Around the time I graduated from college, I was really interested in the history of Dorothy Day, an American convert to Catholicism and founder of the "Catholic Worker" movement, a movement among ordinary Catholics to focus on poverty in America and, eventually, peace in the world.  The Catholic Worker movement emphasizes both activism, non-violent protests in the streets, and service, quietly helping people who need help in your neighborhood.  I thought I would try to help some people in my neighborhood.
     I had recently moved from my hometown of San Francisco, California, to Washington D.C. to be a park ranger in the history-focused National Mall, where I gave tours of the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and other such marble or granite edifices.  I found out that an Episcopalian church near my apartment served a good, hot, free lunch every Saturday in the church basement, so I went and offered my services.  For a number of Saturdays, I can't remember how long, I would go and help cook, serve, and clean up these lunches.  I felt very proud of myself for doing it, though I was afraid, too, of what it would be like.  I am embarrassed to say that I continued to be proud of it, perhaps overly proud, but the fear quickly went away.  I really enjoyed those Saturdays. 
     We would arrive early, and one woman in her 30s or 40s was in charge.  Cheerful, energetic, decisive, she knew what needed to be done and directed a varying and motley crew of volunteers around.  I already knew how to cook for lots of people: I had done that in my co-op house at U.C. Berkeley.  So I often cooked.  We usually had baked chicken and mashed potatoes, with various other side dishes and desserts. 
     Serving the food was interesting: I was always amazed to see all the people who wanted to eat here on Saturday.  The basement (and its kitchen) was huge, filled with long tables and chairs.  Every Saturday the place was filled, it seemed, to capacity, and really noisy with conversation.  One Saturday, a mother of two or three children came up to us servers and angrily demanded to know why her children should eat a plate with a deformed piece of chicken.  I was the most "senior" of us three servers, so everyone looked at me and I smiled and gave the mother a new plate and took the old one into the kitchen.  Everyone seemed happy.  That memory sticks with me. 
     I think this might be the most significant bit of community service I've ever done so far.  When I started grad school a couple years later and then started teaching in universities, I usually thought I was too busy to do something like this.  But I miss it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Teaching a brand new course: Charity and Memory, 1066-1935

     Well, dear readers, I have neglected this blog for a whole year.  But now I'm back, with a new reason to blog on a regular basis: a brand new class at U.W. Oshkosh, indeed a whole new kind of class.  It's part of UWO's new general education requirements, requirements that are markedly different from those of the University of Pécs, as I discussed here and here.  It's called "Charity and Memory, 1066-1935," and it is the first class I have ever taught on the history of welfare, which is my research expertise.  It's also the second-ever class I have team-taught.  Unlike the first class I team-taught, I don't do much at all for the first half of the semester.  It's like I'm back in class again, while my team-mate, Dr. Kim Rivers, leads the class into Medieval England.  I'm excited to be a student again.
     The reason Dr. Rivers and I could teach this class, which touches on both our research expertises, is that UWO's new gen ed program requires students to do one class that integrates community service or, as the faculty call it: "community experience."  Dr. Rivers and I both thought that asking students to do some of the charitable work that used to be done by monasteries in her period and poorhouses in my period would be a natural fit.  Let's talk about charity and poor relief in the past, while doing charity and poor relief in the present!  It makes sense, does it not?
     Over the next fourteen weeks, our students and Dr. Rivers and I will all be blogging about our experiences and our thoughts on them.  I will occasionally link my blog to some others that are talking about the same things.  Until then, I leave you dear readers with a really cool image that graces the front page of our syllabus: The Seven Work of Mercy (1504), by the unnamed "Master of Alkmaar."

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On Being back in the U.S.A.

     Well, dear reader, I have returned from Hungary to the U.S.A. recently, which gives me a chance to relate a few random observations I have made.  Reportedly, when Chuck Berry returned from international trips, he yearned for Baton Rouge, among other cities, as well as for sizzling hamburgers.  (Refer to the hit song "Back in the U.S.A." of 1959).  Well, I must say, I shared the rock-and-roller's yearning for hamburgers.  My first stop in Oshkosh was at a burger joint. 
     Here, in no particular order, are some other observations.
1) After six months overseas, I had little trouble slipping back into American culture.  I thought I would be so used to Hungary, that the U.S.A. would strike me as bizarre.  Not so, it turns out. 
2)  I rarely feel so in touch with "mainstream" America than I do at airports and airport hotels.  Maybe it's the CNN that seems to play everywhere. 
3)  I did find American news a bit jarring.  The newscasters were talking about totally different things.  The relationship of the Orban gov't to the EU did not come up once!  Instead, there is some sort of sequester still at the forefront of politics.  I guess I had not been paying attention.
3a)  American news does not that much about the rest of the world, am I right?
4) Hungarian highway gas stations/stores/cafes are a lot easier to access than American ones.
4a) If there are any restaurants near the highway around Milwaukee, they are not well-advertised.  Put up some road signs, people!
5) Hamburgers are delicious.  As much as I like to patronize stand-alone establishments, the Red Robin's Gourmet Burgers chain is doing something right.
6) We Americans sure drive a lot more than we walk.  But I guess that's not news.
7) I feel quite comfortable in the U.S.A.
8) I like my house. 
9) I miss my Hungarian family and my new Hungarian friends.
10) It feels a bit odd to say to Oshkosh friends or acquaintances: "Yeah, I was out of the country for the last six months!"

More on Oshkosh in upcoming posts....

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On the public history of welfare in America

     I am very proud to have a second-ever post on the Historical Society's blog.  It has nothing to do with Hungary, but lots to do with my research on the history of poor relief in the U.S.A.

Is there a Hungarian "diaspora"?

     I have met many Hungarian-Americans during this semester in Hungary, dear reader, who have either moved back from the U.S.A. or are visiting precisely because they want to spend more time in their ancestral homeland.  This has led me to wonder: is there a Hungarian "diaspora"?  I have always been hesitant to use this word, because I knew that it could be used too broadly at times, and is sometimes used only to refer to the Jewish diaspora.  At other times, it is applied to African Americans too.  Could it be applied to Hungarians?
     Fortunately, a professor I once studied with, Kevin Kenny, of Boston College, has provided a short definition of diaspora here.  It has led me to conclude that Hungarians sometimes could be counted as a diaspora, though not always. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On Teaching American Slavery, American Freedom (sort of) in Hungary


As promised last week, I want to say a little bit about teaching Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom while in Hungary this past semester.  Professor Morgan passed away recently, and this got me to thinking about that book of his in particular.
     Have you heard of this book, dear reader?  Professor Morgan usually wrote about New England Puritans in colonial North America, and ASAF is, therefore, an aberration.  It is about colonial Virginia, and aims at figuring out this paradox: how did harsh, race slavery and greater democracy develop in the same place at the same time?  One such place was Virginia in the 1600s and early 1700s.  How could both the shame and the pride of American history develop together?  
     Morgan answers the question by telling a long but engaging story.  The simple version is that before 1660, poor English and poor African servants were in many ways more alike than different.  Rich English planters perceived them as similar, and these poor English and Africans worked, forged relationships, and ran away together.  By 1705, however, that had changed.  By then, a clear and harsh racial hierarchy was more evident, in which even poor Englishmen had rights - to guns, to participation in government - that Africans did not.  What changed?  An obvious answer is Bacon's Rebellion, in 1676, in which a rebel army of poor English and African men was first victorious and then crushed by the army of the English hierarchy in Virginia.  After that, Morgan suggests, one can see the ideology of race growing alongside the political participation of formerly rebellious poor Englishmen.  The paradox becomes an explanation.  The raising of poor Englishmen's fortunes was accomplished in part by stripping rights from Africans.  Do you see the elegance of this explanation?
     Of course I have not done this 387-page book justice, but I hope you see part of the book's appeal here.  I found it utterly persuasive when I first read this book in my first year of graduate school.  This despite one mentor of mine calling ASAF the least good of all of Morgan's works, and another mentor of mine finding the book compelling, oh-so-well-written, but not quite believable.  I believed it then, and I still believe it, more or less.  I've read a number of things that have helped me add to or qualify Morgan's interpretation.  But I still find it really persuasive. 
     Did my Hungarian students find it so?
     First off, let me say that I found Hungarian students to be VERY interested in the history of race in America, and also in African-American history and Native American history.  These topics were quite popular.  Thus, my seminar on class and race in America had far more students than my seminar on political parties in the U.S.A.  Where I sometimes get the feeling in Oshkosh that students feel they've talked about race enough already, students in Pécs wanted more, more, more.  I think Pécs English majors actually talk about race and ethnicity quite a bit in their literature classes, but they did not feel they had exhausted the subject.  
     Curiously, I found Hungarian students quite reluctant to try to compare racial ideologies in Hungary and in the U.S.A.  While I did not suggest this to students, I quietly thought that popular ideas about the Roma and Jewish minorities in Hungary both in the past and the present could fairly be called racial ideologies, Hungarian students did not really make this connection themselves.  On the rare occasions this comparison did come up, my students generally saw these situations as quite unrelated, and saw the situation of Hungarian Roma, especially, as sui generis.  
     That said, my students tended to follow me in my enthusiasm for Morgan's explanation of racism in America.  This was especially so after stars appeared in my eyes and I explained that part of the idea's early appeal to me was this: if racism could be made in the seventeenth century, why then couldn't it be unmade in the twentieth and twenty-first?  Stars appeared in the eyes of my young, enthusiastic students as well.  After a few verses of Kumbaya, we went home.  I kid about the Kumbaya, but not the starry eyes. 
     I must confess that students did not read the original ASAF, but read a good historiographical account of the debate over early American race and slavery aimed at undergraduates and then listened to me wax eloquent about Morgan’s version of this story.  Still, this digested version proved very popular. 
     At the end of the race and class course, students had many questions, mostly about race in the U.S.A. today.  As I write this, the issue of race in the U.S.A. is particularly momentous, as attention has turned again to the case of Trayvon  Martin and George Zimmerman.  For our part, my Pécs students and I spent our last class talking informally about race in present-day America.  While I am an opinionated guy, I become quite tentative talking about the present while still wearing my history professor hat.  I am not tentative at all, though, about race in seventeenth century.  Although a serious student must read a number of sources for a more complete picture, I think Professor Morgan still has one of the best all-around explanations out there.