Fountain pen writing

Charging into a Minefield: Reflections on High School Humanities Writing in 2020

The other day, as we were planning out the course of her most recent English essay, one of my students mused “You know, Bryan, I don’t know if I like writing essays.” Fair enough! Every person certainly does not need to love the often-torturous process of writing. Yet as I talked with my student about the difference between writing essays for class and writing for yourself, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the ways I’ve seen students struggle with writing over my past three years as an educational coach. There are of course the usual pitfalls of bad grammar and syntax (it’s an epidemic), writer’s block, and never having read enough to internalize good examples, but the more I work with students, the more I’m noticing bad writing habits baked into their very instruction. Sometimes it feels like students are charging into a minefield laid out for them by their teachers. Needless to say, I’ve become concerned with the state of secondary humanities instruction, and indeed for these students once they arrive at college and experience an inevitable, painful re-wiring of their writing process they thought they were just beginning to figure out. If you will indulge me, then, what follows is a reflection on the actively bad writing instructions I have seen students receive from the very people who are supposed to be teaching them best practices.... Read More
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The Grimy, British Forest Gump: BBC’s Peaky Blinders

Chalk another one up to my brother. It’s a rare event that he’s the one to recommend a period piece to me, but when he does, I make sure to watch. I’d heard about Peaky Blinders for a while, but had just never got around to it. That changed this summer, and now that the most recent (fifth) season has aired on Netflix, what better time is there to review this riveting, historically-saturated series?... Read More
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Of Assassins and Aliens, or, The Mundane Present

History might be understood as a story of humans trying to survive, explain the world around them, and escape from the monotony of it all. From storytelling to athletics to art, we humans have been livening things up for thousands of years. Are the legions of teens tuning into their favorite YouTubers every week all that much different from the crowds filling the Athenian agora to listen to a traveling Homeric poet? Indeed, for some (including yours truly), history itself can serve as an escape, providing tales of times so much more interesting than the times one lives in. For me, this phenomenon has added a second, flipped, meaning to the old adage that “The past is like a foreign country.” Sure, they do things differently there, but I also couldn’t imagine those things happening here, either. Recently, however, I realized that this mindset forms the very foundation of one of the most popular video game series of the last two decades: Assassins’ Creed.... Read More
Borgia

No Country for Heroes: History and our Narrative Need for Protagonists

Last week, I reviewed Showtimes The Borgias  in tandem with Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and their Enemies. When I finished Hibbert’s work, I was struck by The Borgias’ choice to portray its titular family as the heroes of their own story. I am no Renaissance historian, but from the sources presented by Hibbert, it would seem that most contemporaries agreed that the Borgia family was a blight upon Italy, Christianity, and all humanity. Indeed, the tagline for the show is “History’s First Crime Family!” Sure, every member of the family is shown doing reprehensible things, but by virtue of the show’s narrative structure, they seem more excusable or, at least, less reprehensible than the actions of their enemies. Even the show’s numerous antagonists seemed mis-characterized; Cardinal della Rovere condemns the Borgias for corruption, yet historically, this future pope was no less corrupt, and possibly even more so! Why these character choices, some so at odds with history? As I pondered, I realized that I had already stumbled onto the answer to my questions: narrative structure and, specifically, our need for protagonists in our stories.... Read More
THE BORGIAS (Season3)

Bushels of Borgias: Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and their Enemies and Showtime’s The Borgias

As any history lover is wont to do, I recently combed through Netflix and added every period piece that I could find to my watch list. I decided to begin, well, at the beginning, or at least with the earliest on my new list. Thus I came to Showtime’s 2011 series The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the Renaissance Pope Alexander VI and patriarch of a famously corrupt Spanish noble family. The show itself was highly entertaining, full of intrigue, backbiting, and monologues that have become the hallmarks of prestige television. As always, Jeremy Irons is magnetic, and even though the Renaissance has never been my specialty, his performance sustained me through events that otherwise might not have kept my interest. As I prepared to review The Borgias, however, I realized that I lacked any foundation for such an historical review. I thus dutifully hunted down a history of the family, and so we come to this tandem review.... Read More
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Give Me More! Max Adams’ The Viking Wars

From first cracking open In the Land of Giants (hopefully coming soon to a Concerning History book club near you), I have been enthralled with what I’ve come to call Max Adams’ Dark Ages Trilogy. Now at last I’ve come to what, for many, is the main event: the cataclysmic clash of cultures—Roman Christian Anglo-Saxon, Irish Christian Celtic and Brythonic, and Pagan Scandinavian—that define the ninth and tenth centuries and the British Isles themselves to this day. Eagerly anticipating Adams’ historical treatment of such oft-tread ground, I dove right in. While I was mostly satisfied by the end, however, as with most endings, I was left wanting just a little bit more.... Read More
STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS, 2015. ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Lucasfilm

An Empire Revised: Star Wars, Fascism, & History

One does not need to look very far for homages to history within George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise. A noble Republic transforms into a corrupt Empire in a reflection of ancient Rome, and, of course, that Empire employs stormtroopers and commits genocide in a dark mirror of Nazi Germany. This last comparison has been clear from the moment Star Wars premiered in 1977, and has served the franchise well in these intervening forty years. Indeed, when asked to tease the origins of the First Order, villains of the Disney sequel trilogy, Lucasfilm representatives likened them to Nazis who escaped to Argentina; this time, however, those escaped fascists regroup and strike back. It is precisely this appearance of the First Order, however, that has begun eroding Star Wars’ original fascist allegory for me, for as the First Order ascends in villainy, Star Wars seems intent on mitigating the evil of the original Empire.... Read More
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American Horror Story: AMC’s The Terror: Infamy

Last spring, Heather and I enjoyed AMC’s somewhat nontraditional historical horror/thriller The Terror (reviewed here on Concerning History). Its story of a British expedition trapped north of the Arctic Circle, struggling to survive the elements even while stalked by a malevolent spirit, was gripping and, well, weird. We were excited to hear that it had been renewed for a second season, though of course this new batch of episodes would need to cover a different story. On board for an anthology series of different period piece horror stories, Heather and I eagerly tuned in.... Read More
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Well, Yeah: Jeffrey A. Auerbach‘s Imperial Boredom

British Empire? Check. My alma mater’s world renowned university press? Check. As soon as I unwrapped Imperial Boredom over Christmas 2018, I was psyched. Here was an aspect of empire seldom talked about: what did it feel like to experience the British Empire on the ground? To settle it, to govern it, to sail or soldier for it? Unexciting, apparently, judging from the title. Of all the books Heather gave me that Christmas, I saved it for last as my grand finale. It was certainly nice to return to familiar material, though in keeping with its subject matter, it perhaps wasn’t as grand a finale as I had originally hoped.... Read More