Blogs > Cliopatria > Dog Days at UC, Irvine ...

Jul 29, 2005 4:27 am

Dog Days at UC, Irvine ...

I don't know about yours, but Atlanta must have the worst electrical power service of any major city in the United States. Our power goes out with some regularity – in almost every rainstorm and, occasionally, without any obvious cause at all. It stormed yesterday in Atlanta, but we had no long term outage. Instead of that, the electricity flashed on and off for about an hour and a half. When that happens, there are consequences. The burner on the coffee maker had been off when the storms began. It was on when the storms were over. Worse than that, Big Momma, the mega air conditioner in the front of our house, is now utterly unresponsive to all commands. Only 18 months of age, she seems to be dead. As a teenager, I got more action from the Prom Queen than Big Momma's giving me now.

So, as I say, it's dog days in Atlanta and I'm sweating in my pj's as I write this. I take consolation in the fact that it's also dog days in Bloomington and dog days at UC, Irvine. Actually, I don't take much consolation in dog days at UC, Irvine, and I offer apologies in advance to myfriendsthere. I don't mean so much to point an accusatory finger as to ask some questions.

Where to begin? Well, first off, Vicki Ruiz hasn't answered my"Offences Are Honored: An Open Letter to Vicki Ruiz and Lee Formwalt." I suspect that Van Hayhow is right: she probably won't. But I have questions for her both in her role as President of the Organization of American Historians and for her and her colleagues in the history department at UC, Irvine. I doubt that she will answer me in either capacity. In fact, I suspect that her being in the department at UC, Irvine, and president of the OAH is one of the reasons that the OAH will not address the questions I raised in"Offences Are Honored: An Open Letter to Vicki Ruiz and Lee Formwalt."

At the root of my concern is the fact that Christine Heyrman directed Michael Bellesiles's dissertation at UC, Irvine, in the late 1980s. Now, I've read both Michael's two volume dissertation and the subsequent book, Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier, and I don't know that they are problematic. But I do know that Christine's subsequent Bancroft Prize winning Southern Cross is problematic and that her protege's Bancroft Prize winning Arming America was fall-over-the-cliff problematic.

Now, if you know those things, as UC, Irvine's Jon Wiener does, there are basically two possible responses to it. One would be to ask yourself:"Does our graduate program in American history bear any responsibility for this largest embarrassment to the doing of American history in recent memory? Are we doing something wrong? What change of course do we need to make?" That, I think, would be the appropriate thing to do. That, obviously, has not been Jon's attitude. First, Jon distinguished himself by becoming Michael Bellesiles's foremost and longest-standing defender. I suspect that his instinct to defend the graduate program in American history at UC, Irvine, was a significant factor is his doing so. Secondly, Jon's recent book, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower, took the position that, at bottom, all the cases that he considered (Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Allen Weinstein, Stephen Thernstrom, David Abraham, Mike Davis, Edward Pearson, John Lott, Dino Cinel, Joseph Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Stephen Ambrose) are best understood as political. His argument is that the accused on the Right had somehow survived scandal, while the accused on the Left had paid heavy penalties.

It would be absurd to deny that the charges against these historians have had no political context, but the argument that the history scandals should be understood primarily as political is incorrect on a number of levels. Did Edward Pearson survive extraordinary blunders because of his Rightist politics? I don't think anyone has identified what his politics are. Dino Cinel didn't loose his position because he was a Left winger. He lost his job because he was a sexual predator. To argue, as Jon does, that the history scandals are best understood as a side-show in the culture wars is to be in denial. Michael Bellesiles didn't lose his job because the Right wingers came after him. As it has been most colorfully put, Michael lost his job because he made shit up (M.S.U.). That puts it very well. Sources aren't to be treated reverentially. They are a kind of excretia of human experience, to be shaped and reshaped for the convenient moment.

I'm concerned about Jon's being in denial because that has implications for how you shape the future of a graduate program in history. For example, maybe if you're Jon Wiener and your major published work has been on John Lennon, then maybe you think it would be cool to hire a historian of the middle east whose major claim to fame is that he's played backup to rock stars for much of his life and claims expertise in" culture jamming and critical theory." That might be unfair to the historian in question, but the self-promotion on that site is a whole lot closer to hard rock glam than earnest scholarship. But, it's dog days in Atlanta and at UC, Irvine, and I'm just asking questions, not pointing fingers.

Or, maybe, if you still argue that Michael Bellesiles did nothing wrong and you frame the historians' scandals as"historians in trouble," you hire one of them as an act of just compensation. Take the case of Mike Davis. His is a long and complicated story. If you don't have the chapter from Jon's book at hand, you can read about Davis here. What Jon and Mark and Mike have in common is an engaged left-wing activism. It's more impressive than their scholarship. In Davis's case, activism intruded so heavily on his graduate work at UCLA that he took years away from it after finishing his course work and was told that he'd have to start over to get a degree. The department refused to accept his first book as his dissertation and Davis left UCLA without a graduate degree.

That story and more is told at greater length in Lewis McAdams,"Jeremiah Among the Palms: The Lives and Dark Prophecies of Mike Davis," LA Weekly, 26 Nov-3 Dec 1998. It is an excellent journalist's report of a tempestuous life. Now, I am willing to believe that there are those rare people for whom one should suspend the normal expectations of the credentialing process. I've argued that here at Cliopatria and there's no doubt but what there are signs of remarkable genius in Mike Davis. He is a MacArthur Fellow, after all. But there are two things that disturb me in the LA Weekly's story. One is that, even if he doesn't have a Ph.D., we know that Mike Davis has an M.S.U.; and the other is his own admission to being surprised, after the fact, to learn that one of his claims was correct. If you believe that Michael Bellesiles did nothing essentially wrong in Arming America, then, of course, you hire Mike Davis. Maybe you should also hire Michael Bellesiles. Doing history by intuition and M.S.U. In Historians in Trouble, Jon Wiener consistently misspelled Lewis McAdams' name. It's no wonder, then, that he writes:"As with any 484-page book with 831 footnotes, [Davis's book,] Ecology of Fear contains some mistakes." Flip a few numbers and the title. It's the same argument Wiener has made about Arming America. My point there makes the same mistake that Wiener does. It flattens out all flaws and treats one as if it is just like another.

I guess my question to Jon Wiener and Vicki Ruiz on these dog days in Atlanta and at UC, Irvine, is this: Given the state of the history market, are hires like these the way to build a great graduate program in history? Given the state of the history market, it is hires like these that give substance to KC Johnson's grievances about intellectual balance in history departments. And, btw, welcome home from Israel, KC.

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Sergio Ramirez - 8/1/2005


Sergio Ramirez - 7/30/2005

It strike me that a department would have both Davis and LeVine--both of whom seem to fulfill historians' fantasies of "relevence." Davis is constantly advertising his lack of formal education, as if that alone made his observations especially valid. He told a grad seminar at Stony Brook (where he had a very brief appointment) that "historians know shit--any truck driver knows more than any History PhD" One senses a bit of the cult of working class hero worship going on here.
And kudos to Ralph Luker for calling LeVine on the astonishing poor judgement he shows in his "superstar"
web page.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

I suppose if you had some experience in these matters, one might be inclined to give your judgment some weight.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

My comment stands. I think this isn't likely to be a productive discussion.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/29/2005

Oh, that was your MA -- mae culpa. Your PhD was in 1973 --I guess I only have until 2012. Let's see if I can keep up with that sprinter's pace.


Derek Charles Catsam - 7/29/2005

Um, I was not wrist slapping. I was maming a comment on the merits.
But since you made this public, I'll remind you what I've reminded you in the past: I am 34 and received my PhD in 2003. No, I do not have a book. You received your PhD from UNC in 1969, and according to Worldcat and Amazon, and UNC's library, your first book came out in 1982 (South Carolina Historical Society Press). I'm not much of a math guy, but the lag between 1969 and 1982 is 13 years. My first book is scheduled to come out in October. That will be a lag of just over 2 years. My first book not from a small press (which you so loathe and criticize, despite having at least two books with Scarecrow Press in Lanham, Maryland) should be out well before 2016, your lag time.
Nice to see how long it took you (exactly one comment) to go for the ad hominem that actually had nothing to do with the discussion on the table. My publishing record as a junior scholar is not on the table when we are talking about the merit of small or independent presses. That you made it an argument about your and my merits reveals a great deal about you. Nothing I did not already know, of course, but usually you stick to insulting my publishing record and my university via email. This is a nice little progression for you. You should be very proud.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

I appreciate having this authoritative wrist-slapping from someone with such broad experience in publishing with a wide range of American presses.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/29/2005

"Small/independent press" should not be sloppy shorthand for determing the quality of work -- the only way to make those judgments is to actually read the work and place it in context against other work of its ilk. Arming America appeared the first time around with a big press, as have many of the works that have been found to be wanting in recent years.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

It wasn't so much a trap as an invitation to talk about what's going on in the department in terms of these questions. I do disagree with you about the "alternate press" thing. I suspect that Bellesiles would have published the revised second edition of AA with Norton if he'd had that option. So, it's a Soft Skull Press imprint. An awful lot of what gets published in the small, alternate press venues is there because it doesn't make the cut with more prestigious publishers.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Thanks, Evan, for the correction. That is how I remember things and I see it now. I don't know why Jon doesn't list it on his website, even if it is out of print.

Evan Garcia - 7/29/2005

Ralph: Okay, so I fell for a trap, as I tend to do. Thanks for considering me a friend, and hearing out my response.

I don't want to issue a semi-official defense of the department, nor would it be my place to do so. Needless to say, the department has many members besides those listed in your post.

Just one more thing--as for the "alternative press" quip in your comment. Please don't equate a small press with editorial sloppiness or quetionable ethical practices. No doubt some small independent publishers are small for a justifiable reason, but many aren't, and publishing with one isn't a way to sneak bad scholarship out without people noticing.

Evan Garcia - 7/29/2005

No, his disseration and early work was on 19th century Alabama and the South.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Evan, It's almost as if I said what I did in order to get this kind of reply. I expected it and would have been disappointed if you, specifically, hadn't objected. My post clearly is from the point of view of a skeptical outsider and one who hasn't read much of Mark LeVine's or Mike Davis's published work. With LeVine, it looks to me like there's an enormous self-promotion glam thing going on. He's got the appropriate credentials, one book by UC Press and the other publications come from the kind of alternate press that Ward Churchill specialized in. Just being in print doesn't make it creditable work. Davis is a different matter altogether, I think. Could be a brilliant appointment. Given the history at UC, Irvine, I think it's very risky to appoint someone who, without the usual degrees, doesn't reverence sources and whose work as a historian is highly speculative. I'm just suggesting that I think the Bellesiles/Heyrman thing ought to have caused the leadership of the graduate program in history at UC, Irvine, to rethink and regroup. Instead of that, it seems to me, it has dug in and re-invested in more of the same.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Ah, Could we be talking about two different historians? Have a look at Jon Wiener's own list of his own books.

Evan Garcia - 7/29/2005

Ralph, I welcome your post, though I have some things to say in response, speaking personally as a student in the UCI graduate program and not as an official representative.

I entered the graduate program following the Bellesiles controversy. I arrived after Christine Heyrman had left, so most of what I have to say concerns your other points in your post.

You seem to equate criticisms of Jon Wiener's book (full disclosure: I have worked and continue to work closely with Jon on my research) with how he operates within the department.

"For example, maybe if you're Jon Wiener and your major published work has been on John Lennon, then maybe you think it would be cool to hire a historian of the middle east whose major claim to fame is that he's played backup to rock stars for much of his life and claims expertise in "culture jamming and critical theory." That might be unfair to the historian in question, but the self-promotion on that site is a whole lot closer to hard rock glam than earnest scholarship."

I do indeed think that is unfair to Mark LeVine. One's qualifications for being a university professor should not be questioned because he engages with the world outside of academia. I think it's also unfair to the other members of the department that recommended that LeVine be hired, many of whom undoubtedly hold different opinions that Prof. Wiener.

With respect to Mike Davis (full disclosure: Mike is my advisor), again, here you have someone who's interests do not stop at the edge of campus. We might disagree on the merits of his work, but to say that his activism "is more impressive that [his] scholarship" is a cheap shot that criticizes his work without engaging with it on a serious level, I feel, and I expect better.

Louis N Proyect - 7/29/2005

When I was reading "Social Origins of the New South" by one Jonathan Wiener as part of a series of postings on capitalism and slavery, I had no idea that was the same guy who wrote for the Nation. While I am obviously no expert on the Civil War and Reconstruction, I was impressed with Wiener's work and recommend it to anybody with doubts about the committment to black equality by the Northern bourgeoisie. (Bourgeoisie is a term used by Marxists to describe the property-owning ruling class in capitalist societies.)

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Scott, You put this very nicely. I've got a meme post in prep. I really do mean to be asking questions in this one, rather than pointing fingers.

Scott Eric Kaufman - 7/29/2005

I've attended some of Davis' "lectures" and "protests," and to be honest I've always departed with the suspicion that they were intended to be "events" instead of informative, but I never realized that the department of history at UCI had such an unsavory reputation. (I mean, the historians have such an unsavory reputation, what must people think of the historicists?) I have to admit that I've listened to Wiener's show on KPFK for as long as I can remember...and that I sat in on his "Cold War Culture" seminar, in which he confronted oppositional positions instead of dismissing them out of hand (an uncommon practice in other departments and interdisciplinary programs at UCI). That said, I was troubled by reviews of his latest book (but haven't had an opportunity to read it yet). In other words, Ralph, you have no need to worry that you've offended me in any way, shape or form...unless you consider the fact that I memed you alsmot a week ago and I still have no idea what you book collection looks like. But that's a minor quibble given the offense my future alma mater's given to the good muse Cliopatra...

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