Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Prepping for Orals!

It feels as if the summer has already dragged on long enough, and yet it is not even officially summer yet! I have taken a full-time temporary job in the Hudson Valley and thus had to bid my lovely NYC goodbye for seven weeks. :(

Lovely Canada Geese: parents and child.
Photos taken in the Catskill Mountains during an excursion as part of my summer job!

So how, then, you might ask, am I staying connected with school and with my ongoing research on Pacific history?

Two ways: 1) watching lots of episodes of the original "Hawaii Five-O" television series on Netflix. That, unfortunately, is all that constitutes my "staying connected" with Hawaiian history for the moment. Sad, I know. But at least it looks like I will soon become an expert on 1960s crime, fashion, and society in Hawaiʻi. Look for a future blog post reviewing the first season (1968) of the show.

2) more seriously, I am beginning my readings for "Orals." What is this thing called "Orals"? "Orals" is what we grad students call our Oral Examination(s). It is a different procedure for each department, and different in every school. In my program there is just one big oral examination at the end of the third year. It consists of the student (me) having to answer questions posed by three faculty members (of my choosing) about anything related to about one hundred to two hundred books (selected by consensus).

Many students in my program will do their examination in two periods of one geographical field plus one other thematic field: say, U.S. History to the Civil War; U.S. History from the Civil War to the present; and women's and gender history, just to take an example. But this model is not set in stone. It works very well, I figure, for students in U.S., European, or Latin American history where the field can be divided into two chronological halves. But it works perhaps not as well for students in Asian history where we have less faculty representation in the department. And if you are doing "Pacific history," then just forget it. The model will not work for oceanic history.

Thus, attempting to complete my oral examination in "Pacific history," because that is how I define my scholarly interests, I have come up with the following three fields:

1) U.S. History to the Civil War

2) Late Imperial China (really, Qing dynasty and Republican period, 1644 to 1949)

3) environmental history

Framed in another way, my two geographical fields are:

Early modern U.S. and early modern China = hence, the "early modern" Pacific World (or at least two poles of it).

Now, the term "early modern" perhaps cannot be so broadly used across this vast transoceanic scholarly terrain. The "early modern" period in U.S. history (not a term that is used that much in this field) may not map so neatly onto the "early modern" period in Chinese history. Actually, I know for a fact that it doesn't! And "early modern-ness" does not necessarily define the era of "U.S. History to the Civil War," the well-defined undergraduate teaching field that it is in my interest to become a master of. When the onset of full-on "modernity" took place in the U.S., and hence when the endpoint of "early modernity" was, is still up for considerable debate. But we can at least say that the period from 1492 to 1776 in North American history was surely part of the early modern Atlantic World. Atlanticists like to argue that that "Atlantic World" held together as a coherent unit at least through the end of the so-called "Age of Revolution," up to, perhaps, the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. If we look at U.S. history from a Pacific perspective, also, thinking about the role of sea otter fur, cattle hide, and whale oil traders in the early nineteenth century Pacific, perhaps we can place these American agents within that larger "early modern" U.S. world of the continent as well. I'd definitely say that the U.S. west coast up to 1850 was part of a distinctive era that was radically different than what came after 1850. And perhaps what were "early modern" conditions on the East Coast in the eighteenth century remained "early modern" conditions on the West Coast in the nineteenth century. As frontiers shifted over time, and new peoples came into contact and into conflict, where should we locate "modernity" in this puzzle? It is not like the whole country just suddenly went "modern" overnight...

And so there you have it: a jumbled anti-definition of the "early modern U.S." :)

So let's just say that early modern North American history (it's not really "U.S." history for most of that period anyway - oh brother, so many caveats!) contains the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and at least the "early Republic" period of the nineteenth century in some ways.

Early modern China, however, is yet a different matter. It does not map onto the Atlantic World as well as North American history does (maybe because China is on the Pacific Ocean, duh?). Anyway, the term "Late Imperial China" generally refers to the period of the last two imperial dynasties, the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911). But a more common teaching field is Qing (1644-1911) and Republican China (1911-1949) combined. But the Republican period is not part of imperial history - since the whole idea, of course, was that Sun Yat-sen and others had founded a republic without a monarch - so what do we call this field, then, that straddles imperial and post-imperial periods? And I would think a course on "Modern China" should definitely begin in the nineteenth century (although not all would agree), even though that is still during the imperial period. Again, just like in the U.S., China did not become "modern" overnight, and certainly some areas became "modern" earlier than others. So, this can get quite confusing. But as long as I focus on the Qing dynasty no matter what, then I will cover the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries - which provides a nice overlap with my U.S. period, too! And the most exciting part is the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries where, finally, U.S. history and Chinese history combine. This is where I can really bring in my passion for "Pacific history" and discuss the world that trade created (to steal the name of a book [which I haven't read]) in the Pacific between the years 1784 and 1842.

And how does environmental history fit in? Most of my readings are in U.S. environmental history, and honestly, many of them concern the twentieth century U.S., so this helps round out my expertise in the U.S. department a little bit. I am also reading up on Chinese environmental history, and some world environmental history.

What I am not reading for my Orals is Pacific history. No faculty member I work with specializes in the field, and honestly, there are very few teaching opportunities in Pacific history, so I'm not sure how advantageous it is to focus too closely on this oceanic field. Instead, I can market myself as both a historian of early modern U.S. and early modern China, including looking at transpacific relationships between the two countries, their peoples, their environments. And, of course, in between the two modern superpowers, and holding the Pacific World together, are the Pacific Islands and Islanders at the heart of my research. And my aloha will always be reserved for Hawaiʻi!

An ever-evolving bibliography

Here is what I have read so far this summer, and what I am currently reading:

Native American history:

Richard White, The Middle Ground (1991). A classic revisionist history of Native American-European relations on the western frontier of French and British empires (and on the eastern frontier of Algonquin peoples' shifting homelands). Focuses on the period 1650 to 1815, ending with Tecumseh's last stand defending Shawnee lands in the territory of Indiana. For a nice film version of Tecumseh's stand, I recommend the documentary "Tecumseh's Vision" from the PBS series We Shall Remain (2009). I find it interesting that White had originally intended to write his book about Tecumseh, but then he became obsessed with the backstory instead, a backstory that stretches back nearly two hundred years and includes a diverse array of historical actors. The book is long, but memorable.

Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn (2007). Second effort by Jacoby following his award-winning book Crimes Against Nature (2001). Takes four perspectives (Apache, O'odham, Mexican, American - sorry, I'm simplifying things a bit) on one event (the Camp Grant Massacre of 1871) to show how history is written by the victors, as they say, but also how memory shapes the revision of historical understanding over time, and across communities. This is a great read; really well written and engaging. I am putting it in my "U.S. History to the Civil War" category, because even though the Camp Grant massacre occurred five years after the Civil War ended, it really was a product of a longer history of escalating tensions and conflicts in the Arizona borderlands that includes U.S. history. But it is also more than just "U.S. history": the Spanish and Mexican colonial periods are equally important to this story, as are the native perspectives, and thus help reorient our understanding of "U.S. History to the Civil War" away from an overly Anglophone, East Coast interpretation. I like that.

Environmental History:

Andrew Isenberg, Mining California (2005). Another new approach to Californian history, following in the footsteps of David Igler's earlier Industrial Cowboys (2001). Igler had argued that the post-Gold Rush economic and ecological development of California was anything but pastoral or based on the efforts of small-scale pioneering producers, but rather that the Far West's rise was defined by large-scale agribusiness - or, industrial agriculture, if you will -, not unlike what we see in modern-day California agriculture. Isenberg builds on this interpretation, but adds yet further layers, showing how mining, logging, and urban development - in addition to ranching (the topic of Igler's book) - similarly followed in an exploitative, industrial manner in the decades following the Gold Rush. Isenberg covers the period from the 1850s to c1880. My favorite chapter of the book actually concerns the Modoc War, something I knew nothing about until reading this. And I really appreciated Isenberg's refreshingly Marxist approach to the origins of the Modoc situation. It made me wonder about how I could apply the same approach to understanding changes in Hawaiian labor and environment in the nineteenth century (very likely the topic of my dissertation).

Chinese History:

Jonathan Spence. The Death of Woman Wang (1978). Just finished this a few days ago. Spence takes one county in Shandong Province during the early Qing dynasty - specifically the late seventeenth century - and weaves together a series of short, smart stories exploring the lives of everyday people. This is social history at its best. The book is certainly one of the great gems of English-language scholarship on Chinese history. But is it history? Spence's stories sometimes draw heavily upon the fictional stories written by a man who lived in the said county during the said time period. Clearly this man's views of the world reflect, in some ways, the true history of his community in that moment. Also Spence offers very little interpretation or analysis of the stories he presents. It truly reads just like a collection of stories, and the reader is left to wonder what, if anything, s/he learned from reading the book. And yet I learned so much: about the ways in which local peoples and officials worked with and sometimes worked around Qing imperial policies, how local power met state power, and how the affairs of the home were also the affairs of the state. Spence does a great job allowing his readers to empathize with characters who are poor or powerless, including Woman Wang. I would love to write history like this, but professors would surely scold me for it. (And yet publishers would love it.)

I am also currently reading Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants (2004), the first comprehensive environmental history of China (although it does not cover the "modern" era. It is long, but that does not necessarily make it whole. Quote me on that one.). It is a really hard read. Makes me realize how grateful I am for Jonathan Spence! This is actually the second time I have tried to read the book, and I am losing patience once again because I just cannot make sense of Elvin's style of presentation. I wish an editor had taken a harder look at this one.

I am also in the middle of a classic work on mid-nineteenth-century Chinese history, Frederic Wakeman Jr.'s Strangers at the Gate (1966). The book covers the period 1839 to 1861. Very well-written, thoughtful, and engaging. A great read so far!

Unfortunately, after any given ten-hour day at work, one has little motivation to pick up an academic book.
Perhaps I should start lifting the books up and down for thirty minutes everyday to build up my biceps and then impress people with my hotness rather than with my knowledge? :)