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. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A link to a thought-provoking blog post on book titles

     I want to say a little something about Edmund Morgan, who died yesterday, as well as about his book American Slavery American Freedom, and teaching in Hungary.  Before I do, though, I am reading what others have had to say about Edmund Morgan, and found this useful post by the Tenured Radical.  It riffs off of Edmund Morgan's great writing to point out how he succeeded in doing what many academic historians fail to do: reach readers who are not professional historians.  Read it, if you feel inclined, and then tell me what you think of my working title.  I could use the advice.  My title is Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law: Stories of Welfare in the Early American Republic

What do you think?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Some Things I Would Like to Bring Home: People Milling Around Downtown

In this, the fourth installment of my series, "some things I would like to bring home," I should mention that I have been away from the blog because I have something very wonderful to bring home: a new baby.  Our littlest one was born here in Hungary, and we are very excited to bring her back to Oshkosh at the end of this month.  
     For this installment, though, I would like to describe one more thing that I wish I could bring from Pécs to Oshkosh: a busy downtown.  Both cities have beautiful downtowns.  Pécs, a city old enough to be part of the Roman Empire, and somewhat bigger in population (165,000), has a bigger and more historic downtown.  Many of its most eye-catching buildings date from the 18th century.  Some, such as the castle walls and the mosques, date from the 16th century.  Oshkosh, incorporated in 1853 and with a current population of 66,000, nevertheless has a downtown pretty to look at as well.  Most of its eye-catching buildings date from the turn of the 20th century.  There is one quite noticeable difference though: Pécs's downtown is usually full of people, especially when the weather is good.  Oshkosh's downtown is often quiet, too quiet.
     When downtown Oshkosh is full, it is wonderful.  During the weekly farmer's market from June to October, or the monthly Art Walk, it is a thrill to go downtown, see it full of people, and bump into those you know.  The problem is that these are exceptional days.  For the most part, people shop at strip malls near the highway.  They do their people-watching at... well, I still haven't figured out where the good people-watching is in my town.  
     By contrast, Pécs is usually full of people downtown. 
Szechenyi Tér, Pécs <>
This photo shows what the main square looks like on any sunny day.  Young, old, rich, poor, in-between, lots of people are there: meeting friends, going for a walk, getting an ice cream or a coffee, on the way to shopping.  It's great for people-watching.  It's something to do when you want to get out of the house.  I will miss it a lot.       I am told by those in the know that Pécs's downtown culture has improved a lot since it was a European cultural capital in 2010.  It was then that the main square was pedestrianized, and the fountains were pumped full of water again.  It was then, too, that people started filling the square more and more.  I find that to be a very good thing.  A downtown full of people feels very good to me.  Here is a picture of the main shopping street, Kiraly utca.
Kiraly utca, Pécs <>

     Can Oshkosh do this?  Does Oshkosh want to do this?  I don't know the answer to either of these questions.  As I've discussed in a previous post, Americans just drive a lot more than Hungarians do.  We Americans are quite used to car ownership, relatively cheap gasoline, and huge stores with huge parking lots on the outskirts of town.  I've noticed a few towns in Wisconsin that still have a department store downtown, such as Sheboygan.  This seems really rare nowadays.  There is a strong public relations effort on behalf of downtown Oshkosh, and it seems to be making some progress.  And the downtown is rather handsome, I think.  
Main Street and Algoma/Washington, in Oshkosh.  <>
 The streets are not full as yet, though.  As the above picture shows, Oshkosh spends months under snow, but certainly not all year.  Downtown Oshkosh has, I think, the best hardware store I've ever seen, and an awesome library, along with great cafes, a couple nice restaurants, two bookstores each with different strengths, and a variety of other stores.  It could have a bit more, of course.  Here is my personal wishlist for downtown Oshkosh:
1)  A bakery that bakes fresh, nutritious bread.
2)  A grocery store, in addition to the fine health food store.
3)  A movie theatre that plays the occasional recent movie.
4)  Red Robin's Gourmet Burgers (I really like this chain, but do I have to drive to the highway to eat there?)
5)  A Department Store, with clothes for good prices.
6)  An international news-stand/florist (one can dream, can't one?). 
7)  A "made-in-the-USA" variety store (in Hungary there is a strong movement to buy Hungarian products, but the only stores dedicated to a nation's products are "made-in-Italy" stores).
8)  More restaurants.

     To reiterate, my "things I would like to bring home" series is not intended to pooh-pooh Oshkosh.  It has many wonderful features, which I will elaborate on when I get home.  Still, I often wish on errands downtown or in the cafes that I would see more people.  What do you think?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Some Things I Would Like to Bring Home: Esprit de Corps among Majors

Beer from Pécs- egészségedre!

Among many misconceptions I have harbored about Hungarians and their language, dear reader, one is this: the meaning of the Hungarian equivalent of “cheers.”  I have been fortunate enough to have toasted perhaps hundreds of times in Hungarian, and am finally able to pronounce the cheers equivalent: “egészségedre.”  It means “to your health,” since the Hungarian word for whole, egész, forms part of the word for health, egészség.  More literally this translates as wholeness, and English speakers will recognize the similarity to our synonym for health: wholesomeness.  For years, though, I understood this word to mean “unity,” which is actually the similar-sounding word egység.  So, while my Hungarian friends were toasting to my health, I was toasting to our unity.  Silly me.

At this point, you might be asking yourself what this has to do with esprit de corps among university students.  Let me explain.  While I may have been mistaken about the importance of unity while toasting, I think I am right that unity, solidarity, and esprit de corps characterize my students at Pécs who are English majors.  In particular, English majors who start in the same year, and make up a cohort together, seem to me to be quite close to one another, and quite cooperative with one another.  I wish my history majors back home had this kind of esprit de corps.  I think it helps to make one’s university experience even better. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I know lots of UW Oshkosh History majors who are friends, who’ve gotten to know one another in classes, who appreciate their mutual interest in history and their comparable career paths.  It seems, though, that it is more challenging for history majors at UWO to get to know one another well.  Likewise, it was challenging for me to get to know other history majors at UC Berkeley until my last year or so of university. 

The differences in esprit de corps between Pécs and Oshkosh, I think, largely boil down to a major pedagogical difference between the university systems.  Hungarian students generally have to choose a major before even starting at university, and almost all of one’s classes will be in that subject, especially in the first year.  American students can typically wait to choose a major until the second year of university, and the first two years of university are mostly filled with breadth requirements, not with courses in one’s major. 

I like the American insistence on breadth, and its flexibility in letting students take longer to choose a major.  If there are deficiencies in this system, though, one is that American majors take longer to form the esprit de corps that Hungarian students enjoy from the first semester.  In my own experience at UCB and in many of my students’ experiences at UWO, one is just starting to get to know one’s fellow majors, and to be able to rejoice or bemoan shared experiences right when one is graduating, and must leave the community of the university.  It seems to me that this is a missed opportunity for American students, especially at larger universities like mine. 

By contrast, Pécs students are thrown together with their fellow majors from the beginning, and at first take classes in lockstep with one another.  They are one big learning community, something we are trying to build more at UWO with our new general education program.  Where our new gen ed program will keep groups of students together in two different classes in the first semester, though, the Pécs English major keeps groups of students together in several classes through the first year, and then in many thereafter as well.  It is a much more intense learning community. 

Fellow Majors may not need the esprit de corps of a marching band, but some is good.
This might make it difficult to meet students in other majors at Pécs, and it also clearly leads to some rivalry between majors.  In some cases, I think, students regret their choice of major as a high school applicant but soldier on because of the difficulty and extra time involved in changing majors.  On the other hand, students learn to rely on one another and learn from one another quite a bit.  On a couple of occasions this learning togetherness went too far, as in a case or two of plagiarism.  In many cases, moreover, English majors divvy up which lecture courses to attend and then rely on one another’s notes for the lecture course they don’t attend.  These are not good practices, I think.  This esprit de corps, though, is largely a very good thing.  I think it helps students learn better, together.  It also builds a strong community that sticks together for four or five years, or as long as majors stay in the program. 

At UWO, both in the university general education requirements and in the history major, we are trying to find ways to build little learning communities earlier.  All of our new ideas, from new gen ed requirements to a new history methods course for history majors help.  They will not shape the lives of first and second year students as powerfully as the Pécs English major, though.  Is there a way to combine what I like about both systems?