Seven+ Confessions of a Reader of Science

Antoinette Burton is the Director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.


Science magazineI recently joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in part because I wanted to get a subscription to their weekly magazine, Science.  I am, after all, the director of a humanities center on a STEM campus. A historian by training, I did some work very long ago on the history of science but I am an outsider even in that subfield– albeit it a curious one. Perhaps characteristically for a humanist, I was motivated to join up by my sense that one way into the intellectual community
of scientists was by reading the organ of the AAAS, which touts itself as “the world’s largest general scientific society.”

I have not been disappointed by my subscription. I love reading the table of contents, the opening editorials (which typically gloss a research article or issue to follow in the main section of the journal) and especially the weekly endpapers, which are featured under the column called “Working Life.” These are career stories designed to allow practitioners to talk about how they got where they are and what that might mean both for science and for the social and cultural environments in which it works.

In the October 7, 2016 issue, Lorena Barba, an associate professor at George Washington University, wrote about “the hard road to reproducibility”— a short “Working Life” reflection on the challenges of guaranteeing that experimental results can be replicated. This has been a concern of scientists since Louis Pasteur, but it has become an issue in light of recently debunked experiments and correlative claims that as many as 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments. That figure was reported in Nature, an organ that calls itself “an international weekly journal of science” (Confession #1: I don’t subscribe to Nature. I know my limits).

I enjoy the “Working Life” essays in Science not just because of the biographical idiom they are written in but because they try to contextualize scientific problems and to link what’s happening in labs and classrooms to contemporary headlines and unfolding stories of science in the world at large. I find myself ripping out these endpages and sharing them with colleagues because they resonate with things we think about in the humanities as well: knowledge production, experimental practice, and the ongoing challenge to all kinds of expertise, whether that is rooted in data or its interpretation. When I finished the Barba essay I Googled her. She tweeted that when her piece in Science was published, she got so much attention and so many requests for help with the question of reproducibility that she developed what she calls “The Barba-Group Reproducibility Syllabus,” which has a list of top 10 readings in the subject.  As I scrolled from 1-10 I marveled at the fact that my subscription to Science had taken me to this page, and to a discussion of the credibility crisis in all domains of today’s learning, scientific or not.

Confession #2: I could read Science online but I have a paper subscription because, not having been “born digital,” I know I am more likely to read the hard copies as they pile up on the coffee table next to the cozy sofa I do all my best reading (and writing) on. And while I do rip out the “Working Life” page I also often go into the online version of the journal and pdf the essay for easier circulation and sharing. And obviously (Confession #2a), I Google Nature, and practically everything else as well.

Okay, as long as I am at it, Confession #3: I mostly skip over the technical reports on research which make up the bulk of Science.  I do TRY to dig in, but I am typically foxed by the terminology, the math and the graphs.  The latter are beautifully rendered, I must say, and I admire them as aesthetic objects. “Figure 3: Theoretical analysis of the TCI step edge electronic structure” that accompanies the article by Sessi et al., “Robust spin polarized midgap states at step edges of topological crystalline insulators,” [volume 354, issue 6317, 9 December 2016, p. 1271] is particularly dreamy and mesmerizing, but it’s by no means exceptional in that regard. The art of visualization in science, and in Science, is an endless source of fascination, even pleasure, for me. It makes me think that it cannot be an accident that the call to visualize is as urgent and ubiquitous in the meditative healing literature as it is in the data science literature at this particular moment (but  [Confession #3a], I digress).

Meanwhile, my utter incomprehension of the meat and potatoes of the contents of Science does not stop me from enjoying what I do read, and doing my own modest ethnographic speculation about it. I frankly wonder at the expertise and knowledge and sheer hard work that has gone into the production of each and every one of the research reports – and at the complex collaboration and team work that goes into the experiments, the data collection and the write up. I am also fascinated by the high stakes of publication in this, one of the premier peer reviewed venues for global science. When retractions occur I worry about the research team. I desperately want to know the skinny on what they are saying to each other in the wake of that kind of negative notice in this most prestigious of publications.  Are they working night and day to challenge the challengers? Are they hanging their heads in shame? Did they lose their funding? Who is getting or taking the blame?

Confession #4: I feel a little terrified by the vast quantities of science I simply have no clue about, nor any hope of ever even remotely grasping in this short lifetime.   Yet despite being pretty intimidated by the entire enterprise of Science between covers, let alone STEM as an aggregate, I do love to dive into my subscription copy every week. The cover stories are enticing. Recent special issues have been devoted to “Genes and Environment,” “Photosynthesis in Crops” (wow! I actually found that interesting) and “Family Ties: Saudi Arabia Strives to Prevent Genetic Diseases.” There are always half a dozen “easy on the eyes” stories preceding the more technical research reports that provide analysis of science undergirding areas like health, neurodevelopment and even “collective action.”  That rubric pointed me toward a “Policy Forum” write-up of research by Nyborg et al. in an essay called “Social Norms as Solutions” which was about behavioral norm experiments and their use value for social policy.

And of course, the obituaries are endlessly fascinating and extremely thoughtful and well written. They stand up well against even the best of the genre in the business, the Economist obituaries, which appear at the end of that publication and are routinely tour de forces. In fact, so gripping are the Economist obits that they compelled me to start a practice I apply to several other weeklies to which I subscribe: I read them back to front. Not Science, though; at least not yet. I still need the orientation device of the table of contents at the start to help ease my sense of intimidation at the fact that I am trying to grapple with such interesting but forbidding intellectual terrain.

And yet, in fact, my anxiety is likely just habit because I thoroughly enjoy my weekly romp through the magazine. What prompted me to write this Reading Matters post (my first since IPRH launched the blog in the fall of 2015) is an article I ripped not out of Science but out of my college alumni/a magazine under a section called “Findings,” which features summaries of research in professional science and social science journals. This short squib details research from the journal Social Science and Medicine which suggests that “bookworms live longer.” Based on data from 3600+ individuals who have been involved in a study on health in people over 50, Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology, concluded that those who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week had a distinct “survival advantage” over those who didn’t. “More questions need to be answered,” Professor Levy conceded. “But we know that reading books involves two cognitive processes that could confer a survival advantage: the slow, deep immersion need to connect to content; and the promotion of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

Good news for Reading Matters readers! And for me in particular, as I am drowning in books that I both read and can never get to (let’s save that sob story for another post). When I am able to immerse myself in the pile, it is the equivalent of restorative medicine for me. In contrast, the habit of reading Science has made me nervous: I am now uneasy when I think about Levy’s research. What are the reproducibility factors for her study? What would Professor Barba and her group say? Will Levy’s research end up on some top 10 list of studies that fail the reproducibility test? (Confession #5: I have no reason to think it would, but I am paranoid about research on bookworms). Thanks to my subscription to the AAAS, I am, perhaps, a more self-consciously scientific reader than I used to be. Indeed, I might well have skipped over the bookworm article in my alumni magazine before I took up my weekly reading of Science. Though maybe not, since, shocking as this may be [Confession #6), I am and will always be a sucker for anything even remotely bookish.

And yet, my new habit has clearly left its mark. I have more confidence in my capacity to breach the walls of scientific writing and thinking, which are not so very intimidating after all. And even if more research needs to be done about bookworms like me, Science has likely contributed to my longevity — in ways that are not fully capturable through data or even experiment per se.

Confession #7: In the end, I have to wonder whether my own Science experiment is really just an example of confirmation bias – in my case, confirmation of my conviction that all knowledge is situated and that data doesn’t tell the whole story. Even if that’s true, I plan to renew my Science subscription — the hard copy, with access to the online version for ease of sharing all the great articles that resonate with everything we think and talk about as students of the humanities.

All of which begs the question: what if the humanities had a similar weekly?

What if there were an American Association for the Advancement of the Humanities — an AAAH? I’d definitely subscribe to a magazine called Humanities, as much out of intellectual curiosity as out of professional interest. And I’d like to think that our colleagues north of Green Street would as well. At the very least, it might give them the kind of survival advantage that anyone interested in the future of research knowledge is going to need — in this new year, and beyond.

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Reading by the Numbers, or what I learned about myself from 7 years worth of data

Kelly Delahanty is the Communications Coordinator for the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. You can see her visual design portfolio at kellydelahanty.com and chat with her on twitter @kelldel.


I joined Goodreads, a “social cataloging” site for readers, in the summer of 2009 after I graduated from high school. I had an ever growing list of books I wanted to read and the post-its scattered around my room were no longer going to cut it. So like any good millennial, I turned to the internet to solve my problem. As of this November, I’ve added 1400 books to my Goodreads account.

One of the more recent books I’ve added is Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. Dear Data is the documentation of “a year-long, analog drawing project”—every week for one year, Lupi and Posavec collected personal data and then visualized the data through a hand-drawn postcard that they then sent to each other across the Atlantic. In addition to being a charmingly gorgeous art book, Dear Data is an argument for “small data”—looking at what personal data tracking can tell you about yourself, or as Dear Data states: “spending time with your data is spending time with yourself.”

giorgia_deardata_46_front

Giorgia Lupi’s postcard from week 46, visualizing all the books she has at home. Source: Dear-data.com

More than a few of the books on my Goodreads account are about data visualization and information design. My favorite work as a designer has always been about using design to facilitate understanding, whether it’s understanding how supercomputers work or what the impact of the National Endowment of the Humanities on University of Illinois’s research is. As I read Dear Data I began to wonder what my personal data would say about me. I use a number of apps to track my habits so I had a few different data sets I could choose from, but since this is Reading Matters, I decided to look at my Goodreads account to see what I could learn about my own reading habits.

So what kind of questions did I have about my reading habits and what did I learn? Well…

Question 1: How much do I read and how much do I want to read?

Let’s start with the basics: As of November 10, 2016 there are 1400 books on my Goodreads account. I’ve read about 30% of those. In comparison, 68% of the books are on my “to read” list, 1.7% of the books have been started and then “abandoned,” and I am currently reading .3% of the books on my list.

Pie chart showing the status of books on my goodreads account. 68% are to read, 30% are read, 1.7% are abandoned, and .3% are being currently read

Figure 1: Status of Books

So I’m certainly ambitious in how much I want to read and I rarely give up on a book. I also read multiple books at once, something I only started doing in the last year or so. But really, this information doesn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. It just lays the groundwork for more interesting queries, like…

Question 2: When did I read these books?

This gets a little complicated because when I signed up for Goodreads I attempted to back date some of the books I had read prior to getting my account. Obviously this included a lot of guess work (Did I read the first Harry Potter book the year it came out or the year after?) and loss of information (What was the name of that book about time travel and Stonehedge that I read in middle school?). The books I’ve catalogued as read prior to 2009 are hardly a comprehensive list, but rather serve as a showcase of the books I read during childhood that had a long lasting impact on me. Or books I had to write school papers about, but you know…same difference.

Post 2009 is another story. The most interesting fact in this data is the fact that I barely read at all my senior year of college, and that my reading habits have picked up considerably since graduating

Line chart showing how many books I've read per year. It goes up over time, takes a sharp dip in 2013 and then goes up sharply again.

Figure 2: Books read per year

This is most likely due to me being especially stressed and busy during senior year. This conclusion is further supported when I break down the last few years into how many books I read by month. Looking at this data, I can link the times when I read the least amount of books to times when I was particularly stressed or busy (which is apparently August, every single year, for some reason).

Multiple line charts showing how many books I read each month for the past 4 years. It typically starts higher in the beginning of the year, goes down in the summer, and then goes back up in the fall.

Figure 3: Books read by month

It’s also possible that I just read more in the winter months than the summer because it cold out and I refuse to leave the warm comforts of my bed for entertainment. If I had access to more people’s Goodread data this is something I’d love to look into. Do all readers cuddle up with a good book when it gets chilly or are most readers apathetic to the changing of the seasons? Do people read more in the wake of new year’s resolution, the same way new members flood the gym on January 1st?

On a personal level, I want to know what the heck had me so busy during March 2015?

Question 3: What do I read?

There’s two ways to interpret this question: by format (prose, poetry, comics, etc) or by genres/subject matter (fantasy, romance, biographies, etc).

Looking at the formats of books across all my lists reveals, unsurprisingly, that most of the books I read or want to read are prose and that most of those are fiction. About 12% of all the books on my Goodreads are fiction comics (also unsurprising to anyone who knows me), followed by 3.5% being poetry (not surprising to me, maybe a tad bit surprising to others), and 1.7% non-fiction comics (not surprising for the simple fact that non-fiction comics are not exactly flooding the shelves). Trailing in last place are a few plays and art books.

Pie chart show what the formats are of the books I read. 45% are fiction prose, 36.6% are non-fiction prose, 12% are fiction comics, 3.5% are poetry, 1.7% are non-fiction comics, .5% are art books, and .5% are plays

Figure 4: Format of books

I’m not sure that this information provides any particular insight into me as a person, but it doesn’t lay a bit of groundwork for understanding the data.

Breaking down the books on my “read” and “to read” list, I think it becomes obvious pretty darn fast what my favorite book genre is.

Bar chart showing how many books of specific genres are on my read and to read lists. The fantasy bar is much longer then the others. The Design, social science, and humanities and arts bars are also fairly long

Figure 5: Genre of books

So…I read a lot of fantasy, which is not surprising to me or anyone who knows me. I also have a lot of books about design (broadly defined to include graphic design, web design, video game design, motion graphic design, and probably some other forms of designs as well). I also, apparently, like non-fiction books about “Humanities and Arts” and “Social Science.”

But here’s where it gets complicated, because Goodreads doesn’t define a book’s genre—users do. I’m the one that decided to categorize something as a particular genre, and how can I decide what to categorize a book as when I haven’t read it yet? Goodreads does suggest genres for each book, but it’s based on what other users have categorized a book as and who knows how trustworthy that is. If only twenty people out of a thousand have labeled a book as science fiction, is it really science fiction or do twenty people not understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy with technology in it?

And because I love making my own life difficult, I decided to limit each book to one genre or subject matter for the purposes for this article. Which means that I had to make some executive decisions on books that technically fit more than one genre, which in turn brought up a number of issues. Do books with time traveling count as historical fiction? What about books that at first glance appear to be fantasy but—spoiler alert—they’ve been in a coma the whole time? How much can a biography look at the larger historical context of a person’s life before it becomes general history book? Should a book that’s about writing marketing copy fall under “writing” or “business”? And don’t even get me started a sorting out whether or not a book should fall into “Humanities and Arts” “Social Science” or “STEM.”

Ultimately I had to make some basic rules. Part of the reason fantasy is so overwhelmingly high is not necessarily because I read fantasy to the exclusion of all other genres, but because I decided to label nearly every book that could be classified as either fantasy or something else as fantasy. I figure that even if there are bodices ripping in horse-drawn carriages, the fact that the occupants of said carriages are time-traveling vampire wizards is probably more important to the story.* Science fiction trumped everything after fantasy was no longer on the table for a particular book, then historical fiction, then romance, and so on, until all that was left was “realistic fiction.”

Non-fiction was even more complicated. I’ve broken my non-fiction books down into a few broad categories, but for the most part this an oversimplification of how I and other Goodreads users label books. They don’t label something as “Social Science”—they label it as philosophy, as politics, as pop culture, as psychology, or as other words that start with “p.” Trying to break down my reading habits by very specific subject matter was unhelpful in extracting any real insight, so I decided I needed group these books into broader categories. And the lines between my three main non-fiction categories—Humanities and Arts, Social Science, and STEM—were not always clear. For example, if a book is about feminism, is that a humanities book or a social science book? If it’s about the history of a specific technology, is that STEM or humanities?

Ultimately it came down to a lot of gut feelings and guess work. I guess I’ll see how well I did when I finally get around to reading those books.

Conclusions

So what did I learn? Well, I don’t read when I’m stressed, and I read more when I’m cold. I read more poetry than art books, and more romance novels than mysteries. I love fantasy, way more than I even realized, and I’m maybe a tad bit obsessed with understanding the boundaries of genres.

There are a lot more questions I want to know. Do I read more stand alone novels or books from series? How soon after a book is published do I typically read it? Do I read more books written by women or men? What about books written by people of color? How do my ratings on books compare to other Goodreads users’ ratings? And how do my reading habits compare to others?

But despite all the unanswered questions, I really enjoyed this project. This seems like something I’d want to revisit again, perhaps once a year. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a Dear Data-like penpal to do it with me.

Anyone interested?

*As far as I know there are no novels about time-traveling vampire wizards who ride around in horse drawn carriages and rip their bodices open. If you know of one, please tell me. And if there are any aspiring authors out there looking for an idea for the next big best seller…you’re welcome.

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Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)

Mark Steinberg is a professor in the department of history who works on histories of the city, revolution, emotion, violence, space, and utopia. He is also the coordinator of the “Global Utopias” project of the Center for Historical Interpretation.


Ecotopia by Ernest CallenbachSomehow, though I was born and raised in capital of the future Ecotopia (San Francisco) and living in the Ecotopian hotspot of Santa Cruz when this book came out in 1975, I never read this novel about the revolutionary secession of northern California, Oregon, and Washington from the United States and the creation of a deurbanized, deindustrialized, and ecologically “stable-state” society. Reading this book forty years later, for a discussion in the ongoing Global Utopias reading group (with people far more knowledgeable than me about the relevant histories of ecology, American environmentalism, and utopian fiction), I had the uncanny feeling, to the point of amusement, that it was about me and my friends back then, or at least our fantasies. The communalism, the spiritual wanderings in the woods, the insistence on open and strong emotions as a virtue, the physical touching among strangers and open and changing intimacies among friends, and the incredible optimism that weave through Ecotopia struck me as embarrassingly familiar. “So seventies,” I thought cynically. But something about it made be pull back from this knowing and cynical attitude.

In the last few years, I have been fairly serious reading about utopia—through the Global Utopias reading group and for a book I was completing on the Russian Revolution. In this reading, I have been especially moved and inspired by the complex, brilliant, and powerfully relevant writing by Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, Ruth Levitas, Davina Cooper, José Muñoz, and others. I began to work toward a version of their understanding of “utopia” not as a fantasy about an idealized place or time (the usual literary version) or a blueprint to be imposed on an unsuitable reality (as has often been said of the Soviet experiment), but a critical knowledge about reality and possibility: a radical negation of that which merely is in the name of what should be, a human impulse to “venture beyond” the “darkness of the lived moment” and discover an emerging “not-yet” (Bloch’s famous description), a story not about what is impossible but what is impossible to accept. As Bloch lyrically put this in his 1918 book Spirit of Utopia, utopia is to “summon what is not, build into the blue, build ourselves into the blue, and seek there the true, the real, where the merely factual disappears.” Because the merely factual is often a world of oppression, brutality, suffering, and catastrophe. As true in 2016 or 1975 as in 1918.

Ecotopia seems to fall back into the older mode of utopian fantasy. Worse, perhaps because it is so rooted in the 1970s (but also in the particular biases of the author), there is some strange and troubling blindness in this vision of a happy and sustainable future. Of course, it is in the nature of the utopian genre, as Jameson and others have noted, to be unable to truly think the new, for our imaginations are “held hostage” (Jameson’s phrase) by the reality that surrounds us. There is the troubling racial vision. Ecotopia is a white paradise, with blacks and Japanese in their own separate nationalist enclaves nurturing their “authentic” cultures. And the large and deeply rooted Chinese-American and Mexican-American communities of San Francisco are missing entirely! (Perhaps, in this imagined future, Trump became president and shipped all Mexicans out of the country? Or perhaps this ethnic cleansing was the result of the tech-boom driven gentrification that is now really destroying long-established ethnic and racial communities in San Francisco, once a very diverse working-class town). Ecotopians’ claims on native American traditions are also troubling. There is a lot of romantic embrace of the myth of the Indian as wise and noble primitive, but no actual native peoples present. And then there is his “feminism.” The government is run by women, but mostly the novel dwells on sexual freedom as the heart of women’s liberation, often a quite self-serving male stance in 1970s radical movements. The flip side of this gender trouble in the novel are the bloody macho “war games.” And then there are the schools: privatized (if teacher-owned) and pedagogically fact-obsessed, with learning measured by national examinations. This is also a one-party state ruled by the “Survivalist Party,” a term in the 1970s with lots of troubling baggage.

And yet, despite all this and my inclination to mock its seventiesness, I was drawn to the novel and sorry it ended (though its predictable and trite ending did not help). I admired the twenty-hour work week to ensure everyone has employment; the work ethic that values pleasure and process above output; the emotionally sustaining micro-communities where individuals are supported and private sorrows eased; the worker-ownership of all enterprises; the complete absence of automobiles. Perhaps the book reminded me that there is something beautiful (as Ecotopians would put it, perhaps with tears)—and necessary in the darkness of our lived moment (whether thinking of global climate change or local catastrophes in so many different communities)—in a way of being and knowing in the world that feels so naïve now: the embrace of communities, everyday life as an inseparable blending of labor and pleasure, a sustainable balance of humans and the rest of nature, and the lack of existential or political fear.

I am inclined to delete those last lines and conclude with something more philosophically and politically sophisticated and subtle. But I will honor the somewhat uncomfortable pleasure I had reading this book by letting the words stand.

 

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Free books available for “IPRH Reads” event

“My neighborhood was the world to me.” — Donnell Furlow, Rockwell Gardens

IPRH is giving away 50 free copies of Audrey Petty’s High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing, which documents the experiences of residents of Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and other iconic housing projects in late 20th-century Chicago.

This book giveaway is in connection with an “IPRH Reads” book discussion on February 1. If you would like a free copy of the book, they are available for pick up at IPRH (Suite 400, Levis 919 W. Illinois, Urbana) Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.  to 5 p.m. If you wish to call ahead, the number is 244-3344. Due to the limited number of books, we ask that only those intending to take part in the February 1 discussion pick up a book.

The book is based in oral histories that testify to the combination of neighborhood violence and community vitality that marked these building and the people who lived in them. We hear the pain and the laughter, the joy, the sorrow and the struggle of those who inhabited these towering monuments to an ideal of fair housing in postwar America that was never realized.

On February 1 at  7:30 p.m., we will be joined in our discussion by the book’s editor, Audrey Petty, a writer and educator whose fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction has appeared in many prestigious journals and anthologies. She is currently the Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor of Fiction at Northwestern University.

This event is a “Public Square@Illinois” event as well as part of IPRH’s 2016–17 theme, “Publics,” which explores the changing nature of public spaces, ideas about the public, the future of public access, the importance of public histories and the variety of competing ideals that surround the very notion of the public as a commonplace or collective ideal.  For more about IPRH’s programs and activities, visit the IPRH website.

 

 

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Finding Good Books

Melissa Littlefield is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health. Her research investigates the cultural and historical intersections of the neurosciences and the humanities. 


Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyI read for a living—that sounds kind of wonderful, right? Novels and short stories and lots of articles for research and/or the courses I teach: this semester it’s “Science Fiction,” so Frankenstein, Island of Dr. Moreau, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and World War Z are all part of the plan. In Spring 2017, it will be a healthy dose of Techno-Cultures (Engl 597), recent non-fiction I have been longing to read myself—if you’re at all interested in Science and Technology Studies come on out for the class!

The irony is that reading for a living leaves me largely uninterested in reading during my leisure hours. Those who know me best will tell you that I’d rather be making or doing: knitting a sweater, spinning up some wool, building a house, baking, or just walking anywhere and everywhere. Reading for fun became something I did occasionally on long flights. I would pick up a random bestseller at an airport, read it while traveling, decide it was middling, and deposit it in a hotel room somewhere along the way, hoping, perhaps, to fill some other traveler’s empty hours.

John Steinbeck’s The PearlPart of the trouble, I suppose, is finding a *good* book in this sea of options. When I was younger I refused to admit that there were bad books in the world. I was a firm believer that all books were worth reading—that is, until I read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. [As an ironic aside, I went on to read all of Steinbeck’s novels over one lazy summer and he remains one of my favorite American authors.] Tastes change. In my teens and twenties I found Falkner, Nabokov, and Joyce. And, as much as I loved the classics when I was a kid (Little Women, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, The Princess and the Goblin); I love messy, untrustworthy first person narrators more; I like complexity and wit; I enjoy speculative fiction, if it can follow through on its premise. I sound picky. I am. As an adult with limited time, so many books disappoint me within the first few pages.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsLuckily, during those years in which I was uninterested in untested fiction, my son and my grandmother kept me in the loop. When my son was little, we would read together (everything from Jack and Annie, to the A-Z Mysteries, to Harry Potter). Once he started reading on his own, which was many, many years ago now, I wanted to stay in touch with his interests and so we often had read-a-longs and I volunteered at his school library (so I could always tell what was flying off the shelves). This is how I found out about The Hunger Games, Rick Riordan’s adventure series, Divergent, and The World as We Knew It. All excellent books that are more than just “young adult fiction.” (Sigh . . . labels.) My grandma, on the other hand, encouraged me to branch out into some other contemporary fiction—you see, we have an arrangement: she often sends me novels (such as The Secret Life of Bees) and I send her a new novel to read each year around the holidays. Usually, I vet these novels by reading them first. That’s how I happened to read The Goldfinch and Bellweather Rhapsody.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret AtwoodSometime in 2014, when my son was far outpacing me in the novel read-a-longs, I decided to have a go at picking up random books. I thought this was the secret to my son’s success (I have since learned that it is not!). Being un-selective has led to less curated reading and a strange mélange of books, including The Insect Farm and The Dynamite Room. I found the Twilight trilogy abandoned in a “free” pile in our neighborhood, and I actually thought “why not?” I wanted to know what all the fuss was about anyway. Turns out, these books are funny and “fun”—who knew? And you can read them while knitting. Being late to the party is also a theme for me: I found a short story in the New Yorker by this guy named George Saunders—you heard of him long before I did, I’m sure . . . after “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” I followed up with his collections, Tenth of December and Pastoralia. They are excellent. I will also admit to some purposeful hunting: China Miéville has long been on my list, so I picked up This Census Taker. You should too. I have also been working to catch up on Margaret Atwood’s recent novels and short stories and so finally made some time to read The Year of the Flood, the second book in her recent trilogy. I cannot recommend Miéville and Atwood enough—the books I just finished are chock full of allegory, fable, speculation, creepy mystery, apocalypse. And each follows through on its awful, awful premise.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte BronteReading for a living can be dangerous to one’s taste in and time for fiction. I don’t think I’m any less picky, but I’m becoming more willing to take chances again, to meet new characters, to revisit new books by favorite authors, and to admit that twenty-first century fiction has some new and exciting trends. Plus, I’ll be the first to admit that I missed that feeling of full-immersion. My son, who continues to be a voracious reader, can often be found senseless to the world, pouring through his latest acquisition. When I call him to dinner (for the third time), I am reminded that my best hours were spent likewise, curled up in some window-seat reading Jane Eyre or The Sound and the Fury or Oryx and Crake for the first time.

 

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Six books a week

Amy Ando grew up and was educated in Massachusetts. She is a Professor of environmental and natural resource economics in the Department of ACE at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


The ABC Murders by Agatha ChristieSix books a week. The Tilton Public Library in my small home town allowed me to take out no more than six books a week. At that rate, I consumed all their children’s books long before I stopped being a child (and all the books about horses had my blank-inked number stamp in them many times.) In that era before “Young Adult” novels were legion, the kind librarian struggled to find more to sate my prodigious but still juvenile drive to read.  One inspired day she showed me the wooden shelf of Agatha Christie novels, and I was hooked. The part of me that would grow up to be a researcher loved playing sleuth, and the human drama at the heart of all good mysteries gave me an exciting preview of the world of adult interactions I would soon join.

Mystery novels are still the staple of my leisure-time reading. I read via Kindle so my novel is always with me on my phone if I have a moment to see what lay inside that locked trunk or what the reluctant witness was finally willing to reveal. In fact, I am a fiction omnivore—my eclectic list of favorite recent books includes non-mystery entries like We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Martian by Andy Weir, and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. But I would drop everything if Kate Atkinson would write another of her carefully crafted mystery novels featuring the detective Jackson Brodie (the first of that excellent series was “Case Histories”).  I’ve read everything by Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo, and Arnaldur Indridason (just a few of the many excellent Scandinavian crime writers) and am currently working through Elizabeth George’s novels just because I love DS Barbara Havers so much.

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Mystery novels are considered by some to be low-brow “genre” fiction, but I devour them still. My work as an economist is serious and dry; at the end of the day I appreciate a good puzzle with interesting—and even compelling—characters to draw me for a while into a human drama that is not my own.

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Thinking Historically About Decision 2016

Ian Toller-Clark is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign studying modern conservatism in the Global Midwest. In particular, he seeks to understand the culture of conservative Midwesterners through their reactions to and influences on deindustrialization, public policy, and partisan politics. 


The presidential election of 2016 seems especially unique, tumultuous, and stressful. Many commentators have even described this election as unprecedented. Yet the candidates, the issues, and the campaign strategies emerged from the past decisions, actions, and beliefs of candidates, their staffers, and voters. During these last few weeks it is important to think historically and read deeply. As voters, we listen to campaign messages, gather our own information, and assess these campaigns through social media. Here I thought I would focus on some helpful books that provide the historical context for particular issues that have animated the last eighteen months of Decision 2016.

Conservative Bias by Bryan Hardin ThriftDonald Trump’s successful campaign for the Republican nomination has been credited to his ability to manipulate, attain, and sustain media coverage. Bryan Hardin Thrift’s Conservative Bias: How Jesse Helms Pioneered the Rise of Right-Wing Media and Realigned the Republican Party shows us how one conservative Republican used news media to spread his message, transform the Republican Party into a conservative party, and make the U.S. South electorally competitive. Thrift focuses on the political career of Jesse Helms prior to his election to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina in 1972. In particular, Thrift discusses Helms’ role as the Vice President of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina.  As Vice President Helms had his own editorial news program, Viewpoints, through which he gave a voice to, and perfected conservative ideas and principles. In particular Helms’ editorial commentaries presented an opportunity to normalize conservatism with working-class white North Carolinians. Through 1960s white working-class North Carolinians steadfastly supported Democratic candidates at the local, state, and national level out of loyalty to the New Deal agenda. Yet, Helms developed a strategy, which Thrift labels, “pious incitement,” to realign North Carolina politics. This strategy “involved expressing righteous anger to gain attention, deny legitimacy to others, and claim victimhood.” Helms, on a weekly basis, vented to his listeners about civil rights activism, radicalism at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a poor economy. Helms’s outspoken disdain for civil right activists, the New Deal, and constant championing of the “free-market” encouraged white working- and middle-class voters to support conservative Republicans in North Carolina. Donald Trump’s vehement denouncement and anger over free trade agreements, and illegal immigration as detrimental to the lived experience of white working- and middle-class Americans echoes Jesse Helms’ “pious incitement.” Trump’s outrage has become enshrined in the Republican Party platform, which suggests a monumental realignment of Republican Party politics. In other words, while Trump himself represents a unique phenomenon within mainstream U.S. politics, Conservative Bias shows us that his rhetoric and outrage reflects the latest iteration of a counter revolutionary strategy to realign the Republican Party.

While political entrepreneurs such as Jesse Helms and Donald Trump have mobilized conservative constituents to remake the Republican Party, historian Meg Jacobs shows us how conservatives remade the state through governing.  In the 1970s conservatives held significant positions during the Nixon and Ford administrations, and used the energy crisis of the 1970s to undo New Deal regulations and reorient the purpose of the federal government. From the 1930s through the 1970s liberals in both the Republican and Democratic parties argued that the purpose of the federal government was to combat unemployment and ensure prosperity through government regulation. As a consequence, when United States experienced an energy shortage in the early 1970s the Nixon administration imposed measures such as price controls, and gas rationing. Americans from long-haul truckers to middle-class suburbanites, however, bitterly opposed this government-led solution which contributed to higher gas prices and tremendous gas lines. Conservatives within Nixon’s administration including William Simon and George H.W. Bush argued for the deregulation of the oil and gas industries to lower gas prices, and ease the gas shortage. During the energy crisis Nixon resigned from office over the Watergate break-in, and Gerald Ford assumed the presidency. President Gerald Ford listened to his advisers including Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, and Alan Greenspan who encouraged a focus on inflation rather then unemployment. As a result, Ford pushed for an end to price controls and an austerity budget. Even though Ford lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Carter continued the focus on controlling inflation. In particular Carter ended price controls and backed legislation that would deregulate the oil and gas industry.

Carter’s decision had immense consequences for the Democratic Party and the future of U.S. liberalism. The administration’s response to the energy crisis clashed with Democrats in Congress. Congressional Democrats led by Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Toby Moffett pushed for an extension of price controls. In addition, Democrats crafted a full employment legislation (Humphrey-Hawkins) reminiscent of New Deal. The policy differences between Carter and congressional Democrats on how to control inflation, and end the energy crisis in the 1970s highlighted a schism with the Democratic Party. This schism was a catalyst for an ongoing process of realignment between pro-growth Democrats and laborite/leftist Democrats. Pro-growth Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, and Jimmy Carter before her, have pushed the Democratic Party towards representing suburbanites in metropolitan spaces across the United States, while laborite/leftists such as Bernie Sanders have continued to give voice to the union hall base of the Democratic Party.  The energy crisis Meg Jacobs argues transformed U.S. politics, allowing conservatives to undermine the New Deal state, causing divisions within the Democratic Party, and precipitating a decades long recession. It was this recession and its effect on Midwest that created Donald Trump’s path to the presidency.

Demolition Means Progress by Andrew HighsmithThe recession, high inflation, and energy shortages of the 1970s turned the U.S. Midwest, the industrial heartland of the United States, into the nation’s Rust Belt. In particular, the energy crisis ravaged the U.S. auto industry. Rising oil prices contributed to a precipitous drop in the production of U.S. made cars such as Ford and GM. This dramatically changed the local economies of Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, and Cleveland that had been the centers of industrial capitalism in the United States since the early 1900s. While business executives started in the 1950s to move their factories to the Southwest, and South to capitalize on on the lack of union strength and pro-business political class, the energy crisis of 1970s and 1980s reenergized the deindustrialization of the Midwest. Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew Highsmith argues that deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s represented a particularly significant moment in the history of U.S. capitalism. It was this moment of deindustrialization that solidified the U.S. Midwest as the Rust Belt region that has been the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The anger and bitterness of working-class whites in the Rust Belt that so many pundits have attributed to the success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders originated in the 1970s with the structural changes of the auto industry, and other heavy industries in the Midwest.

Demolition Means Progress simultaneously reminds us that deindustrialization was one catalyst for the current political, racial, and gender contours of the Rust Belt’s landscape. Highsmith explains how residential, workplace, and school segregation, urban renewal, suburban development, and deindustrialization created the Rust Belt. Highsmith’s analysis of Flint, Michigan complicates the historical narrative of deindustrialization and the origins of the urban crisis. Highsmith argues that the eventual collapse of Flint as an economic powerhouse in Michigan occurred not just as a consequence of white flight. Rather in the 1950s and early 1960s GM executives and Flint city leaders joined together to invest in a metropolitan vision of capitalism. This vision was a growth agenda built around the idea of a decentralized industrial landscape that was united under a single local governing structure. In other words, as businesses spread out across the suburban landscape around Flint, Michigan, the city government would annex those suburbs. This plan, however, faltered as suburban capitalists, politicians, and neighborhood activists sought to incorporate themselves and create independent local governments separate from Flint. This vision of separate communities resulted from the desire of white middle-class homeowners to create enclaves that would not be forced to desegregate their schools or housing. The success of the suburban capitalist vision rather then the metropolitan capitalist vision, Highsmith argues, contributed to the desire of business leaders to move their companies to new regions. In other words, the anger and bitterness experienced during this election cycle is not just a backlash from the Great Recession or even the last thirty years but a consequence of the our country’s spatial and cultural arrangement that voters, policymakers, business leaders, community leaders, and politicians created through their decisions and desires.

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Going for it: A Review of “Fourth and Long”

Sam LeRoy is a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Marketing and Management as a Chancellor’s Scholar. He serves on the Illini Pride Student Athletic Board as a Block I Chair where he designs the football student section’s famous card stunts for the 2016 season.


I’m an athlete to the extent that I can run a respectable 5K and can occasionally shoot a basketball accurately. I played competitive high school basketball, but lacked the ability and passion to develop into anything more than a bench player on a sub-par squad. Despite my meager athletics career, however, I became quite good at cheering on sports teams. Growing up in Champaign, it was only a matter of time until Fighting Illini fandom took hold during the magical Rose Bowl run in 2007. I may not have the skill to play on a football field, but I do know how to yell for three hours in Memorial Stadium and have some voice leftover for the volleyball match that night.

Though my fandom remains fervent as ever, as I matured I became exposed to the often nasty underbelly of collegiate athletics: player abuse, academic fudging, recruiting violations, heart-wrenching firings, and under-compensated workers (cleverly termed ‘student-athletes’). There are the political pressures from donors and administrators mixed with ideological battles within universities over whether pumping millions of dollars into an auxiliary service is the best use of limited resources. In just my previous year as a student at the University of Illinois, the athletic department faced three different player mistreatment scandals—football, women’s basketball, and women’s soccer—before cleaning house and hiring a new athletic director and football coach at record (and somewhat controversial) salaries.

Fourth and Long: A fight for the soul of college football by John Bacon

John Bacon’s book Fourth and Long: A Fight for the Soul of College Football sheds insight into the contemporary soul-searching questions of collegiate athletics from inside four Big Ten programs: Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Penn State. Embedding himself into the programs and learning from the players, coaches, and administrators, Bacon provides institutional knowledge and first-hand accounts of each program’s major storylines at a tipping point in their history.

For Michigan, he chronicles the attempted rebuild from the disastrous Rich Rodriguez regime and the experimental tenure of a corporate world, bottom-line driven athletic director at a school where tradition often demands the more expensive option. At Northwestern, he covers to Wildcats’ remarkable rise under coach Pat Fitzgerald and their efforts to maintain relevancy while adhering to the highest academic standards in the conference. In Columbus, he follows Urban Meyer’s takeover of an Ohio State program reeling from a scandal where players received improper benefits for autographs and personal tokens. The Penn State sections describe the impossible task of returning not only success but ethics and morality to the Nittany Lion program in the wake of Jerry Sandusky. Perhaps the most interesting and relevant storyline, however, is the apparent correlation between a winning football program and academic success, local economic prosperity, and quality of student life.

Financial investment in these programs is a unifying theme, as is the relationship between gridiron success and academic excellence. The benefits a university and its home community enjoy as a result of strong athletics programs is evident throughout, especially in the case of Penn State. Many football fans are unaware that Penn State sought Big Ten membership primarily because of academic ambitions. Penn State was already an established national football power even as an independent, but the Big Ten’s powerful athletic brand offered even more national exposure and revenue. Big Ten membership also included access to the league’s academic counterpart, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (now the Big Ten Academic Alliance), which facilitates research and teaching collaboration.

Without an elite football program Penn State would likely never have attracted a Big Ten invitation, and to their credit university leadership reinvested the financial rewards into a drastically raised academic profile. Bacon shares that over the ten-year period leading to Fourth and Long’s publication Penn State’s liberal arts faculty grew from 240 to 360, a 50% increase. Since joining the conference, they have enjoyed a tripling in federal research grants to nearly $800 million. In 2012, the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked Penn State forty-ninth, marking their first top-fifty appearance.

The other schools recognize the economic impact of quality athletics as well. A recurring thread in the Ohio State sections is the Buckeye’s surge in academic profile over several decades, a by-product of academic investment by university stakeholders jubilant from conference and national championships. In Ann Arbor, a single football weekend can generate up to $10 million in revenue for the local community. Even Northwestern is increasing athletic investment, citing the benefits to the student-athletes, quality of campus life and stronger school spirit for all students, and improved town-gown relations galvanized by touchdowns and bowl appearances.

Athletic prowess certainly doesn’t guarantee academic excellence—with due respect few would consider reigning champion University of Alabama an academic peer to the University of Illinois, while the University of Chicago dumped Division I athletics all together and remains one of the elite universities of the world. Nevertheless, Fourth and Long does successfully illustrate the academic and local economic benefits a winning football program can provide in a fascinating discussion on the modern issues of cut-throat Division I athletics. Bacon’s book is an honest assessment of college athletics at its best and its worst, and is a worthwhile read for sports fanatics and skeptics alike.

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Keep Reading History

Steve Beckett is ’70 B.A. History grad and a ’73 J.D. (Law) grad.


The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas FlemingI am just finishing Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas J. Fleming.  It’s a fascinating book, that is not too long but basically tracks the romantic interests of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  It is certainly a different perspective of American history’s great figures, and relies heavily on original letters as source materials.  It has a solid review of the Jefferson – Hemmings controversy.

You can read other reviews of Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers on Goodreads.

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon HallidayI went to China in May on behalf of the law school and delivered a couple of lectures on American criminal law and procedure and to promote the International Program at the College of Law.  I picked up and read Mao:  The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.  It is a comprehensive biography that is quite lengthy but also an eye-opening read about recent Chinese history that puts the current relationship between China and the USA in proper context.

You can read a review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Michael Yahuda at The Guardian.

We Illinois History graduates need to keep reading history!

 

 

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On Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History

Rachel Jensen is a musician who maintains a bustling studio in Urbana, where she teaches piano, coaches singers and speakers, and churns out the occasional poem. She earned her masters and doctorate at UIUC.


Lines: A Brief History by Tim IngoldThis book caused more lights to go on in my head than anything I’ve read in a very long time. Tim Ingold is a social anthropologist who winds fluently into both philosophical and poetic realms. I found these traversals to offer a rare genus of intellectual ecstasy. He discusses the primal topic of what lines are, have been, can be in human history and development and, further, how certain suppositions about them might thwart what it means to be alive if left unconsidered.  That is to say, Mr. Ingold discusses how thinking more carefully about this construct, the line, can assist us, perhaps free us a bit, to undergo our lives rather than to exist in blind dashes, pressing from point A to point B and losing the entire In-Between. There is much more to consider as this thinker examines several specific human endeavors in turn. Within the context of each of these explorations, Mr. Ingold poses the important question of what could happen if we were to become aware of the inadvertent lines we “walk,” un-straighten certain lines of thinking and moving through our lives, and become devoted to a less limiting passage through our singular and collective scribble of existence. Others have, of course, posed similar questions in other ways. Mr. Ingold’s inquiries, however, are so penetrating and original that the reading itself proves transformative.

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