Thursday, September 30, 2010

Update on Laptop

Sorry for the lack of updates recently.  I've recently had to deal with a keyboard failure on my laptop and have only just now been able to create a work-around solution.  I am working on a few new posts and should have those up in a few days.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Boardgames as Complex Cultural Artifacts

Here are game board designs for two titles, Twilight Struggle and Labyrinth, available through GMT Games.

Both fall under the 'card driven strategy' war-game, one of the particular niches GMT Games fulfills.  I own a copy of the deluxe edition of Twilight Struggle and although Labyrinth will not be available for purchase until this coming October, I have already reserved a copy.  Even though I always considered myself a board game fan, I never really understood the incredible diversity in the field until this past year.  That all changed when one day I found BoardGameGeek and looked over its listing of the top games.  Back then, as today, Twilight Struggle occupied the top rank in War Games, and near the top in both Strategy and Board Games over all.  I went to my local gaming store, Guardian Games, and purchased a copy the next day.

The famous "Record of Events"
Reading the reviews online, it becomes quickly evident that players really respond to the Cold War theme infused with the game-mechanic of influence spreading/control.  Use of a shuffled 'events' deck adds variability to the game experience, while specific mechanics ensure a continued level of pressure that makes every play memorable if not nerve wracking.  My copy contains a record of every game i've played, the various outcomes and winners inscribed on the underside of the box-top after each struggle is completed.

Just looking over the list brings back some memorable moments- the two day game, started at my friend Kevin's apartment and finished the next day at our local dive Beulahland, where I won as the USSR by two points after final scoring, or the game that ended in Kevin's favor when he played 'Wargames' and survived with one point to win for the USA.  The record is exclusively between Kevin and myself, as  Kevin is my only friend who has both the time and desire to play complete sessions with me.  (Although I did teach my girlfriend how to play not long ago)  Having never played a game quite like this, I became quite enamored with its presentation and play design.  Take a look at some of the 'event' cards contained within the three game decks. (The game is separated into three periods- early, middle, and late war)
The 'event' cards cover the gamut of Cold War moments
Playing the game, becoming immersed for hours (the two-day game took a total of six or seven gaming hours), I became aware that Twilight Struggle exists as a cultural artifact that, through its implementation and play-design mechanics, acts as a limited historical simulator.  This limited simulator creates a 'space' for the reenactment and reinterpretation of the Cold War through the construction of narrative revealed during game play.  Not only that, but the materials themselves (just look at the game boards and cards above) are also richly textured artifacts that evoke memories, in those old enough to have them, when viewed and used in the game.  For those like myself, who were born at the tail end of the Cold War (1981), the board, cards and chits used act as a sort of nostalgic link to a time some now romanticize in the wake of events surrounding us today.  Even though the game looks like a static object, its nature as a limited historical simulator makes the experience it creates kinetic- both player and game bring experiences and expectations to the act of playing, both working to produce a story that, in a limited way, helps bring a 'coherent' interpretation of the Cold War experience.

Over the next few posts I would like to explore Twilight Struggle as a rich text artifact, capable of encoding several layers of the milieu from which it was inspired.  I'll begin by looking at other fields of study that will help shed light on this process, namely material culture analysis and literary genre of Cold War studies, with some (brief) exploration of how Gramsci/Foucault/Lefebvre also inform this inquiry.  Then, I want to turn to the game itself and analyze the components within.  In conclusion, I want to look at other games that are either derivative, as in 1989, or take the simulator/narrative construction device to new grounds, like Labyrinth or Train. (Check out Brenda Brathwaite's talk on developing Train- it's incredible) My belief is that these boardgames, indeed all boardgames, are worthy artifacts of study that move beyond the (sometimes) playful nature of their existence.  At the very least, they deserve more attention in the study of culture and history. 

Note: Part II of this series can be found here.  And also, Part III.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

And now for a review…Slavophile Empire by Laura Engelstein

As I mentioned in my last post, I study Imperial Russian History. It's a topic that I totally accidentally happened into studying, largely prompted by a conversation I had with one of my advisors colleagues during my 2005 study abroad/Russian immersion in St. Petersburg. We met in what Americans might call a 'campy' restaurant, themed heavily in images and avatars of bears and just off the ever-busy Nevskii Prospect. A wood-carved bear greeted me at the entrance, a stuffed bear stared me down while I ate my soup, and I could spy the outlines of bears in the forest, captured in illustration across the room, when my advisors friend explained to me the breakdown of my field. He asked what period I wished to study and what exactly I wanted to research. Having, more or less, blundered into graduate school during my final semester of undergraduate study, I had never considered these questions and could only offer a vague answer.

That was okay, he said, and then informed me that the study of Russian history separated into roughly three periods; Early/Medieval, Imperial, and Soviet/Post-Soviet. Too many scholars in the Soviet Period, he said, would make it difficult to acquire a job. Early/Medieval was interesting but required learning Church Slavonic, a prospect that seemed impossible considering I was just beginning to study the actual Russian language itself. Imperial, he said, might be the best fit. I took his advice to heart, and began to focus my attention on the middle period when I returned home.

Imperial history, for me, really is a satisfying study. There is a large availability of documents, thanks in part to a larger and more educated bureaucracy that existed for the years I study, roughly 1700-1917. The empire contained numerous ethnic minorities and diverse ecological zones that, in turn, impacted the character of life for the inhabitants within. The Russian state underwent several changes during this period, moving beyond the status of regional power to that of a respected player in world politics. Yet, despite the increasing role Russia played in Western European history it came under constant scrutiny, both internal and external, for the central themes of its identity. Here was a state whose culture straddled the border between 'East' and 'West', buttressed throughout its existence by a powerful, anti-liberal, centralized government that nonetheless spawned several movements with the goal of reconciling the cultural differences between Western ideas/values and the ever evolving idea of Russian identity. The legacy of this evolution reverberates in Russia today.

Laura Engelstein's latest work, Slavophile Empire: Imperial Russia's Illiberal Path, provides an explanatory theme of this process in a collection of seven essays, plus introduction, using a mix of approaches related to the Cultural/Intellectual fields of history. Reading it reminded me of Fin-de-Si├Ęcle Vienna by Carl Schorske in that you have no reason to read the essays in order, other than the fact the Ms. Engelstein has divided the collection into three sub-themes. As an instructor, I find collections such as these helpful when trying to provide students with a reading assignment that is, in itself, a contained unit. Chapters in a progressive narrative approach reward the reader for sustained diligence, but it has been my experience that unless the text is of an especially engrossing nature it can be difficult to maintain interest. Engelstein's work provides one the opportunity to pull out a key essay that allows the reader to engage with the topic in a format that has a clear beginning, middle and end. The other big plus in my book is the use of footnotes; endnotes in a printed text almost guarantee that the references contained within will almost certainly never be inspected and students should become accustomed to checking the footnotes on interesting points contained within the essay. Besides, footnotes are where authors can be snarky or witty even if the text itself is more formal.

Engelstein explores the paradoxical relationship Russia's proudly anti-liberal autocracy held with, then, radical liberal movements created by the societal shockwave of the Napoleonic Wars. As noted in her introduction, liberalism conceived a new model of the nation, one based on an increasing importance accorded to the individual and where the ideas of sovereignty were redefined delegating some power to the new concept of 'society'. This model, if one could call it that, held no universal form and took shape in a variety of distinct configurations across Europe. One of the central tenets of a liberal nation was the cohesion achieved among similar peoples in an "illusion of unity", a concept that held little currency for rulers of multi-ethnic empires. However, the autocracy soon learned that it ignored the "illusion" at its own peril, as the power of the nation-state threatened to pull apart empires whose populations were diverse and not at all common. Autocrats of Russia required a unifying myth of their own and thus selectively took from Western trends; they codified laws, introduced trial by jury and increased opportunities for the promotion of cultural and economic development. Yet the central government never gave up censorship and still relied upon the supreme, if arbitrary, rule of the Tsar.[i]

In this vein of developing institutions and attitudes, exemplified best in the classic Slavophile vs. Westernizer debates, Engelstein investigates, as she puts it, the tensions between the liberal paradigm and the conservative anti-liberal alternative.[ii] The organization of the collections essays falls into three groups that explore these tensions. The first three essays represent aspects in law and legality that lent themselves to the westernizing urge of moderates. The next two, in turn, explore parallel efforts in the religious sphere to resist these westernizing movements by examining two contemporary intellectuals, Aleksei Khomsakov and Ivan Kireevski, and their attempt to find reason within an Orthodox framework. The last two chapters look at how Slavophiles contributed to the formulation of the ideal Russian nation, defined for them by the core characteristic of Orthodox belief.[iii]

I particularly enjoyed reading the first and third essays, dealing with Russia's weak commitment to the rule of law in both Imperial/Soviet frameworks and the desire of moderates in the judiciary, through the promotion of religious toleration, to reform the role religion played in society, respectively. Without going into too much theory, the first essay considers how the experience of Russia, an empire that combined liberal, anti-liberal and absolutist governing models, reconciles with Foucault's conception of how the liberalist 'rule of law' changed, for Western Europe at least, the apparatus of domination from compulsion to discipline as exercised by the newly empowered bourgeoisie. Engelstein interprets the contribution of liberalism as one that replaced the, "alliance between discipline and the administrative state with a configuration that frames the operation of discipline within the confines of the law."[iv] However, in the Russian experience, the Tsarist and later Soviet rulers took this conception in a new direction. Instead of invoking a "disciplinary society limited and controlled by the authority of the law", Russian rulers created a governing framework that eschewed the validity of 'legality' and sought control of various disciplines for their own use.[v] It is a fascinating read, one that really demonstrates how the distinct historical-geographical experience of Russia shaped governing models and expectations visible today.

The third essay investigates the role modernist efforts in the judiciary played in the debate on the role of religion in society and the correlative issue of religious tolerance. Eastern Orthodoxy, spread to the present day lands of Russia in the 9th century, served not only as a unifying force in the broader society and culture but also as a central pillar of the Tsarist regime. To be sure, the Orthodox Church's relationship with the Russian rulers was complex and only distantly mirrored that experienced by Western European nations and Roman Catholicism. The reformers highlighted in this essay sought not to remove religion from society but instead to change it into a more modern conception, in line with the models then emanating out of Western Europe. Efforts to reform religion in the judiciary, according to Engelstein, constituted an attempt by Russian intellectuals to create a space for 'civil society' to flourish, albeit one that did nothing to discount the absolutist nature of the larger government apparatus. Three key discussions are used for evidence in this tracing of opinions; the first showcases the discussions of the 1895 editorial commission charged with revising the criminal code, the second looks at the liberal jurisprudence work of Professor Mikhail Reisner, and the third considers the impact of the pre-1905 October Manifesto imperial decree of 17 April 1905 on religious tolerance. Taken together, the three vignettes demonstrate the alternating currents of thoughts, up to the near end of imperial rule, regarding one of the central tenants of Russian identity; religious belief.[vi]

I really enjoyed reading Slavophile Empire, as well as one of Engelstein's previous works, Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom, that looks at the religious sect of the Skoptsy and their relation with the Russian government. Both provide readers with a means to understand some of the historical differences Russian people encountered in their imperial past and the connections those differences created in contemporary society today. If nothing else, Slavophile Empire demonstrates that the liberal values so often taken for granted in the making of our Western society not only penetrated Russian society but also forced appreciable change in their wake. This point alone should inform our opinion of the mobility of ideals, and the ultimate mutation those ideas undergo through the process of circulation.
Ultimately, I enjoy the work because it demonstrates the incredible depth available in the study of Imperial Russian history.

[i] Laura Engelstein, Slavophile Empire: Imperial Russia’s Illiberal Path (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 2-3.
[ii] Ibid, 3.
[iii]Ibid, 7-10.
[iv] Ibid, 20.
[v] Ibid, 20.
[vi] Ibid, 78-98.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

History and the Teaching Philosophy, part I

It's not often that I become engaged with one of my friends 'status updates' on Facebook, yet that was truly the case the other today as I fired off four (fairly) rapid-fire comments in response to "Written teaching philosophies: just that much boiler-plate nonsense." I explained that, over the past year, I’ve been carefully considering what my role as a historian should be with regards to my professional desire to teach. I cited an example in a recent NY Times article in which a graduate in media studies landed a job largely based on his use of 'social media' techniques to reach a larger audience. Within the profile, the student confessed that he initially went into college with the hopes of being a history teacher. However, problems arose.

"I thought I was going to be a history teacher, but after taking some of the core general ed and psychology courses, it seemed like history was all about memorization, and I wanted to do something more hands-on, so I made the segue to media studies. The range of courses you could take made it great: production, marketing and journalism."[i]

Now what struck me about this statement is the way in which the student-turned-worker perceived history; namely, it was a process of memorization. I have no doubt that the majority of undergraduates who take history courses feel this way as well. To them, history is nothing more than a trivial pursuit, useful only for the occasional 'one-up' with other history buffs or the even rarer appearance on Jeopardy. To be truthful, the way most programs are taught this is not far from the mark. Why? For me, at least, it boils down to two factors: one, professional skills used by historians are not properly inculcated because, two, the not-so-secret workhorse of many departments, the graduate assistants, perform much of the teaching/grading load and are themselves in the process of mastering the skills they should, in theory, one day pass on to their students. When professors actually teach a course themselves, they often focus on content and little on historical/analytical skill usage. Usually, if you are taking a history course where an actual professor is the instructor (often at the higher levels of history courses) they assume you have already mastered said skills and will gloss over them accordingly.

Rather than focus on the second point (I will speak to that in a later post), I would like to use this post to discuss why the first point, that essential skills used in history are not properly taught, parallels the statement my friend made, that "written teaching philosophies" equals "just that much boiler plate nonsense."

I draw inspiration from a John Dewey essay, entitled "The Problem of the Liberal Arts College" in which Dewey traces the development of liberal arts education against the rise of the scientific revolution and pursuant democratization that dissolved barriers between 'liberal' and 'useful' knowledge. ('Liberal' was the domain of the elite, while 'useful' remained in the hands of the poor- think artisans and craftsmen) Once scientific knowledge gained appreciable respect for its ability to explain and predict the natural world, it thrust itself into the liberal arts college mainly on the grounds that it was useful for social affairs. (Think Economics and Political Science) This intrusion provoked practitioners of the 'liberal arts' to take a conservative stance, to assert that a clear distinction exists between true 'liberal arts' and 'other' subjects. Yet, Dewey is of the opinion that such attempts to isolate the liberal arts will not reestablish the old model of the medieval university and, further, that the implication of such division possesses serious consequences. 

"At a time when technical education is encroaching in many cases upon intelligent acquaintance with and use of the great humanistic products of the past, we find that reading and studying of 'classics' are being isolated and placed in sharp opposition to everything else. The problem of securing to the liberal arts college its due function in democratic society is that seeing to it that the technical subjects which are now socially necessary acquire a human direction. …they cannot be liberating if they are cut off from their humane sources and inspirations."[ii] (Emphasis in the original)

This, to me, is one of the central problems of higher education today. We are so concerned with producing business majors, engineers, chemists, physicists, financiers, etc… because they, in turn, produce the so-called marvels of our age that we don't mind if these students skimped on studying the humanities. What use is history in the production of new vaccines? Or in the manufacture of complex debt instruments? History, along with the humanities in general, is becoming bankrupt in the eyes of the masses because the 'professionals' of these disciplines long ago abandoned the pursuit Dewey elaborated above. We no longer give the technical subjects a 'human direction'. And yet, there is a severe disconnect in this reasoning when the masses blame bankers for their role in the financial crisis- how can we become angry and judge a profession that was never, in any real way, taught their connection to 'humane sources and inspirations"?

This brings me back (albeit in a rather round about way) to the point I am trying to make; history has failed because those students who actually engage with the topic do not take away appreciation for the skills involved. What skills am I talking about? Essentially, history is about the critical evaluation of sources and forming a cogent argument in written form using those sources. All sequencing of events and explanatory theories/models used in history derive from these fundamental skills. When I taught undergraduates at the University of Kansas, I was amazed at how students approached diverse topics in much the same way; they created a chronology and then proceeded to memorize that list. When I pressed them to look at the sources presented in class, be they trial records, tax registers, newspaper articles, or even secondary sources written by established historians they took the very words they read (if they read them at all) for gospel. When I took the time to show them how history uses a critical eye towards the evaluation of these sources it was like a light bulb finally turning on for the first time. For many students today, simply being in a book equates to truth. In our current age of mass marketing and psychological profiles, could anything be further from the truth?

Thus, historians at all levels need to seriously consider their position vis a vis teaching philosophies. Perhaps the reason my colleague felt that all teaching philosophies were "boiler-plate nonsense" is because that is what they have become. Later, in our Facebook to and fro, she admitted that non-historians don't read our teaching philosophies- only a select panel or hiring committee will glance at it, preferring to instead focus on the actual work produced by the candidate. Now, of course, this should be one of the primary qualifiers for a potential hire or certification for doctorate but I argue that teaching philosophies should also be just as important. As a graduate student who studies Imperial Russian history, and peasants of the 19th century in particular, this is one of my central concerns. How can I make this topic relevant to students today? How can I draw them in? However, these are questions best asked after a student has mastered the ability to critically evaluate sources and written arguments. It is my belief that too few history courses actually spell out the acquisition of these skills, instead opting for the traditional 'chronology' approach that many students regard as trials of memorization- once students believe that, it is only a short jump to viewing history, on the whole, as trivial. They no longer see the practice of history as relevant to their lives, even though the essential skills I elaborated on above are applicable to a wide range of activities.

In this way, teaching philosophies are only a first step towards bringing a 'human direction' to the study of history. As this is a theme that requires much more deeper analysis, I will revisit this topic and explore practical models that can help re-shape the way we consider history to be taught. At the conclusion of his essay on the liberal arts college, John Dewey stated,

"The present function of the liberal arts college, in my belief, is to use the resources put at our disposal alike by humane literature, by science, by subjects that have a vocational bearing, so as to secure ability to appraise the needs and issues of the world in which we live."[iii]
I couldn't agree more. Stay tuned for more posts!

[i] Robin Finn, “When Youth Is a Job Qualification,” New York Times, 8 September 2010.
[ii] John Dewey, “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College,” in The Problems of Man. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), 86-87.
[iii] Ibid, 87.