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Boston University Arts & Sciences

History News
Newsletter of the BU History Department


On December 13, the History Department welcomed students, faculty, and the community to an exhibition and presentation at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) mounted by students in HI 190 Making History: Community and Conflict in Boston’s Past. The exhibition, “King Philip’s War in Artifacts and Ideas,” documents the culture of early Puritan settlers and Native Americans in the late seventeenth century. At its center is the devastating war, which cost 9,000 lives and destroyed nearly half of all New England towns. To create the exhibition, students transcribed documents, worked hands-on with 400-year-old manuscripts, and analyzed objects ranging from the cutlass of a colonial soldier to the bowl from which the Wampanoag sachem Metacom ate his meals. Students researched the artifacts, wrote the museum labels, and gave presentations on their research.

Image: Abbey of Gethsemani

CAS HI 190 students at the MHS exhibition.

“Making History” is a freshman-level class designed by members of our department and supported by BU’s Redesigning the Undergraduate Learning Experience initiative. It covers three critical moments in the history of Boston: King Philip’s War; the late 19th-century, when European culture shaped the city through art, architecture, and music, as well as wave upon wave of immigrants; and the 1970s, when racial tensions boiled over with court-ordered busing. Students work chiefly with primary sources in the course, whose assignments replicate the kinds of research and writing done by practicing historians. The MHS exhibit was researched, designed, and assembled by the members of the class, working with staff of the Historical Society. It includes more than thirty letters, diaries, paintings, personal objects, weapons, and early printed sources from the time of King Philip’s War, encompassing private life, religious beliefs, uses of the land, and the course of the conflict. Students offered brief remarks describing the content and organization of the exhibit. Guests then circulated freely among students and viewed their work.


Cambridge University Press has just published David Mayers’ FDR’s Ambassadors and the Diplomacy of Crisis, a book that investigates the part played by personality and circumstance in U.S. foreign policy during World War II. This account of U.S. envoys residing in the major belligerent countries—Japan, Germany, Italy, China, France, Great Britain, USSR—highlights the fascinating role assumed by such diplomats as Joseph Grew, William Dodd, William Bullitt, Joseph Kennedy, John Winant, and W. Averell Harriman. Between Hitler’s 1933 ascent to power and the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, U.S. ambassadors sculpted formal policy—occasionally deliberately, at other times, inadvertently—giving shape and meaning not always intended by FDR or predicted by his principal advisors. From appeasement to the Holocaust and the onset of the Cold War, Mayers examines the complicated interaction between policy, as conceived in Washington, and implementation on the ground in Europe and Asia. By so doing, he also sheds light on the fragility, ambiguities, and enduring urgency of diplomacy and its crucial function in international politics.

At the same time, Brandeis University Press published Professor Simon Rabinovitch’s new book, Jews and Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish intellectuals wrestled intensely with the problem of how to preserve, construct, or transform Jewish peoplehood. But despite a rich array of writing about the vitality of Jewish existence in the diaspora, the key works have never been collected in a single volume, and few reliable English translations exist.

In this volume, Rabinovitch assembles a variety of thinkers who offered competing visions of peoplehood within the established and developing Jewish diaspora centers of Europe and America. Writing in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, and English, these Jewish intellectuals sought to recast Jewish existence—whether within multiethnic empires, liberal democracies, or socialist forms of government—in national terms. The fourteen readings in Jews and Diaspora Nationalism present extensive excerpts on Jewish peoplehood or nationalism from major figures in modern Jewish history, in many cases providing the first availability of these texts in English. As volume editor, Rabinovitch provides an introductory essay, as well as short introductions and annotations to each document that contextualize and make accessible this wealth of primary sources for scholars and students.

Image: Abbey of Gethsemani

Henry May (left) with Professor Charlie Capper

At the heart of the academic experience is the relationship between students and teachers. We can all point to one or two (or, if we’re lucky, three or four) mentors who not only influenced our professional and intellectual development, but shaped the kind of people we became. In September, Professor Charles Capper wrote a tribute to one such mentor, his graduate school adviser Henry May, who passed away on September 29 at the age of 97. One of his generation’s most distinguished historians, May was Margaret Bryne Professor of American History Emeritus at the University of California Berkeley, where he had taught from 1952 until his retirement in 1980. Capper was one of his last PhD students. Capper’s piece is published in the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.

Image: Abbey of Gethsemani

Members of the research team on the eastern shore of Lake Tana.

Currently on sabbatical leave in Ethiopia, Professor Jim McCann’s research on the historical ecology of malaria took him to the Lake Tana basin, where 84 percent of the Nile waters emerge. He has recently taken part in a survey of mosquito and snail habitat in the lake and the longer-range ecology of the basin from which the Nile emerges. (The idea of Lake Victoria as the source is a product of the Victorian imagination!) This lake’s ecology supports fisherfolk in papyrus boats, spectacular birdlife, and island monasteries. McCann’s work seeks to understand the unique human ecology of the lake, its agricultural hinterlands, and its longer-range future reflected in its past. He and local colleagues have just submitted a proposal for the Lake Tana Basin Center for Environmental History at Bahir Dar University. McCann’s sabbatical book project is supported by grants from the John S. Guggenheim Foundation and Fulbright.


  • On October 11, the Undergraduate History Association hosted “History Beyond BU,” an event which brought back former BU history majors to discuss how they have used their history degrees in various fields, including business, law, consulting, and medicine. This event highlighted the important analytical, writing, and conceptual skills that history courses teach students and inspired students to think outside the box in searching for careers that value an education in the liberal arts. For details, visit the news section of the History website.
  • Undergraduate concentrator Rachel Klepper was elected to Phi Beta Kappa
  • Pickering and Chatto recently published the first book by 2010 PhD Robyn Metcalfe, currently on the history faculty at University of Texas at Austin. Meat, Commerce and the City: The London Food Market, 1800–1855 analyzes the provisioning of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, elucidating shifts in the way city dwellers viewed food as well as the changing meanings of public and private space during the nineteenth century.
  • The History News Network is giving featured coverage to last month’s conference, “Recasting Presidential History,” co-sponsored by BU’s Institute for American Political History and the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. In addition to David Austin Walsh’s thoughtful blog post on the purpose and proceedings of the conference, HNN has featured several short video interviews with some of the presenters. For more, visit the HNN website.
  • The Central European History Society has elected Professor Jonathan Zatlin as an at-large member of the society’s Executive Board. Zatlin will serve a three-year term and his duties will include serving on the society’s grant’s committee.
  • Last month, Modern Intellectual History published its latest issue. Co-edited by Professor Charlie Capper, the journal serves as a focal point and forum for scholarship in intellectual history and related fields. Though its primary focus is on Europe and the United States, it also devotes attention to intellectual and cultural exchanges between the West, the non-West, and the Americas. To view the table of contents, visit the History website.
  • In December, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured BU’s Civil War historian Nina Silber in its forum on Steven Spielberg’s new film, “In Spielberg: Reconciliation or Reconstruction.” The blog post considers Hollywood’s success and failures when tackling major historical problems.
  • Professor Phillip Haberkern has been awarded a Junior Fellowship from the Boston University Center for the Humanities for academic year 2013/14. As a Junior Fellow, he will receive a two-semester release from teaching in order to devote himself to research.
  • Professor Simon Payaslian, holder of the Kenosian Chair in Modern Armenian History and Literature, presented a paper titled, “The Effective Implementation of International Human Rights Law: Challenges Facing Armenia in the 21st Century,” at a conference organized by the Ministry of Diaspora in Armenia. The conference took place at the National Academy of Sciences, Yerevan, on November 19–20, 2012.
  • Graduate student Zach Fredman has won the Samuel Flagg Bemis Dissertation Research Grant, awarded by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). He will receive the award at the SHAFR luncheon, held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New Orleans.
  • Finally, Professor Cathal Nolan is working as a consultant on the NOVA film, Secrets of World War I, now nearing completion. It will be broadcast in the UK in a 90-minute version and in an hour-long version in North America next year. It deals with a major archeological dig that has uncovered long-buried German and British trenches along the Messines Ridge and Ypres Salient, site of three major battles and numerous bombardments and gas attacks from 1914 to 1917, the last preceding and forming a preliminary to the truly appalling carnage of Third Ypres, or Passchendaele, as the Canadians prefer to call it.

Keep Us in the Loop

Let us know about news or upcoming events. Please send news items to history@bu.edu.

Boston University

Boston University
Department of History
226 Bay State Road
Boston, MA 02215
Telephone: 617-353-2551
Fax: 617-353-2556
E-mail: history@bu.edu