In the Government Know: The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

The right to understand what transpires in our government is essential to democratic principles. Voting citizens recognize that their elected representatives, government appointees, and various programs produce an enormous quantity of records and other information. All of said information is categorized under strict laws affording it protection for national security or commercial reasons. However, releasable information can still provide insight on how public servants work to make the government transparent. Inherent with the right to vote is the right to know what happens inside an agency or department and the documents therein. This is the basis for one of the most significant pieces of legislation created in the last sixty years: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Freedom of Information Act allows people to request specific information regarding agency operations, records, and government transparency. The act also establishes specific criteria for determining a record’s eligibility for public release pending a review process. The lifespan and accessibility of records change between agencies and each have their own additional criteria in addition to basic FOIA requirements. This is done to guard against the release of any sensitive, personal, or national security information. The act is also used to describe ‘opening up the government’ by letting the public see how it operates. In a famous court case, Fielding F. McGehee vs. CIA, the Washington DC Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its closing statement that having an informed voter is essential to a functioning democracy:

“It has often been observed that the central purpose of the FOIA is to “open … up the workings of government to public scrutiny.” One of the premises of that objective is the belief that “an informed electorate is vital to the proper operation of a democracy.” A more specific goal implicit in the foregoing principles is to give citizens access to the information on the basis of which government agencies make their decisions, thereby equipping the populace to evaluate and criticize those decisions.”

McGehee v. CIA, US Court of Appeals, Washington DC Circuit, January 4, 1983
U.S. Representative John E. Moss (D-California) led the charge for implementing FOIA and the restructuring of information security levels (Image courtesy of U.S. Congress)

California Representative John E. Moss made it his congressional career to passing FOIA and signing it into law. He would ultimately spend twelve years garnering support and shepherding it through various committees. In the late 1950s, government classification of documents was being mishandled and accidental leaks were problematic. Representative Moss chaired the Government Information Subcommittee and took it upon himself to upgrade security classifications and draft rules on accessibility. On July 4, 1966 a hesitant President Lyndon Johnson signed bill S1160 into law. Johnson recognized the need for the law, but gave additional measure to protecting military interests and allowing government officials to discuss things frankly without having to mince their words and actions with the overarching specter of public investigation constantly overheard. [Statement by the President upon signing the ‘Freedom of Information Act, July 4, 1966] The law was initially repealed following a revision of Title 5 of the US Code, but a new version was eventually drafted and signed with the effective date of July 4, 1967, just one year later.

Since 1967, FOIA underwent numerous revisions and amendments strengthening, limiting, and reclassifying information security. The most impactful occurred with the increasing scrutiny on national security and the War on Terror. Today there are nine exemptions when a person files a FOIA request:

  1. National security and foreign policy classified by executive order
  2. Internal personnel rules of an agency
  3. Specifically exempted from disclosure
  4. Trade secrets, commercial, and financial information
  5. Interagency memorandums not subject to litigation
  6. Personnel and medical files of government employees
  7. Records relating to ongoing law enforcement and federal investigations
  8. Supervising agencies on financial institutions
  9. Geological information relating to wells and water tables

Agency employees still have to be conscious of what is in a document that’s being requested under FOIA rules. Redactions still take place to ensure no personal information is being leaked. This can sometimes cause confusion as the general public sometimes assumes that a FOIA requests means they can ask for anything unredacted. This is incorrect. FOIA requests generally take around twenty to thirty days to process depending on the agency and even then, FOIA officials or subject matter experts still review the packet before it goes to the requester. They are sometimes classified as ‘Government Information Specialists.’ This screening process can cause frustration as the included information becomes more complex. Rarely do federal agencies meet this twenty to thirty day deadline because of the steps involved to release public and redact private information.

While the FOIA request process is not a perfect one, the legislation itself is remarkably important to maintaining a transparent government that allows people to ask questions about its function and policies. An informed electorate is powerful in a representative and democratic government and FOIA is the best legislative tool to be in the know.

Humanity in the Ocean: The SEALAB Program and Capt. George Bond, MD

Dr. George Foote Bond envisioned people living in the ocean. Not just in submarines or diving bells, but in fully furnished environments where a person can eat, sleep, and work for weeks at a time. Much of what the ocean offered in terms of scientific research was immense in the mid-20th century. Underwater explorers only glimpsed what was beneath the waves. Pioneers like Jacques Cousteau who led conservation efforts and developed novel aquatic technology like the ‘aqualung’ were a new generation of scientists exploring the ocean. The barrier to expanding these horizons was overcoming the physical and psychological limitations of the human body. Dr. Bond would spend his entire Naval career researching the answer.

George Bond was a well-loved doctor in North Carolina. He was profiled by the American Medical Association for his services in rural counties and was proclaimed ‘Doctor of the Year’ by the community of Bat Cave, NC where he lived. In 1953, Bond joined the U.S. Navy’s medical corps and was certified as a diving and submarine medical officer. It was during these early years that Bond became enamored with diving and undersea exploration. At the Naval Medical Research Lab (NMRL) in Connecticut, Captain Bond collected data on the effects of underwater pressure on the human body and novel diving techniques. One practice called the ‘blow-and-go’ was a method for endangered submarine crews to safely exit the craft if it sustained damage. Bond was obsessed with his theory of ‘saturation diving’. Bond argued that as divers descended deeper underwater and their bodies absorbed the maximum amount of gas molecules, their decompression time would remain static. An underwater habitat pressurized to the appropriate depth was needed in order to allow divers to live in that environment. Under direction from the Secretary of the Navy and the NMRL, Bond and his colleague Walter Mazzone began the Genesis Project.

Capt. George Bond (far right) instructing Navy divers on the various parameters of the Genesis Project. They needed to be extremely accurate in their data findings in order to ensure their theory of saturation diving could be proven in real-world practice (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

Genesis’ goals were developing a safe breathing mixture in a pressurized environment for divers and determine the amount of time needed for decompression. These two puzzles were crucial to Bond’s saturation theory. Mazzone developed a gas mixture comprised primarily of helium with small levels of oxygen and nitrogen. After various trials with test animals (the first batch dying from oxygen toxicity), the project moved onto human testing. Volunteers were observed inside the pressure chamber conducting experiments for specific lengths at time. Between 1957 and 1963, the Genesis Project gathered a mountain of data on atmospheric and environmental conditions. Test subjects and Navy divers Robert Barth, Sanders Manning, Raymond Lavois, and John Bull endured a battery of varying breathing mixtures, but after their longest endurance of 12 days at 198 fsw (feet of seawater, or 7 atmospheres of pressure), saturation diving became a proven concept. A person could live underwater in a controlled environment indefinitely. In an article in ‘Environmental Health’ Bond presented his findings:

As a result of some six years of animal and human studies involving closed ecological systems, elevated pressures, and synthetic atmospheres, the stage has been set for operational application of the work. It would now appear that we can safely station men at any point on the submerged continental shelf, with a reasonable expectancy of useful performance for prolonged periods of time.

New Developments in High Pressure Living‘, 1964

With atmospheric testing completed, constructing a suitable habitat was the next step. Bond and his team searched through shipyards and found two old depth charge sweepers. These cylindrical structures were the perfect size. Welders and engineers improvised in joining the shells and produced a long, cigar shaped habitat. They outfitted it with bunk beds, kitchen appliances, a bathroom, and a workspace for recording scientific data. While the setup seemed crude, it was all the divers needed.

SEALAB I. This relatively simple design was the first step in the man-in-the-sea program showing that a person could live on the ocean floor, circa 1964 (Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

In July 1964, SEALAB I and its crew were sent to the coast of Bermuda to test the new habitat. During this preparation, they received an unexpected boost in public profile; Malcolm Scott Carpenter. The decorated Navy commander and Mercury astronaut who recently completed an orbit around Earth, became interested in Bond’s research. His interest in oceanic research was sparked by Jacques Cousteau while attending a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carpenter looked forward to participating in the first SEALAB expedition, but an motorcycle accident days before sidelined him. On July 20, the habitat was lowered almost two hundred feet into the ocean. The four divers (Robert Thompson, Lester Anderson, Robert A. Barth, and Sanders Manning) spent their days swimming in the surrounding waters, recording data, and documenting the issues with the SEALAB capsule. Problems arose concerning the internal temperature, humidity, and communications, and the divers sometimes improvised repair work on the seafloor. Ominous tropical storms approached Bermuda eleven days into the project, cutting their schedule short. In that time however, Bond and the diving team proved that a person could work and live in an underwater pressurized environment. Bond finally proved his theory of saturation diving.

Shifting the focus from SEALAB to the broader historical context, Bond’s research was crucial in the United States’ competition with the Soviet Union. The Cold War influenced scientific research with the U.S. Armed Forces and researchers embarked on a flurry of defense work to gain advantages. Confrontations were most likely to occur at sea and with modern navies transitioning to nuclear-powered ships and submarines, the race for oceanic dominance progressed. Deep-sea diving was given high priority as the potential for underwater rescue crews increased. Geopolitical factors now played a role in the success of research like Bond’s and SEALAB needed to perform flawlessly.

With the success of SEALAB I, the Navy immediately authorized Bond to begin work on SEALAB II. Bond received an enormous increase to his budget from the Navy (along with the Legion of Merit medal) following the success of SEALAB I. The design and construction of the second habitat comprised a full year and made improvements on the previous schematics.

Commemoration of the SEALAB II facility and crew. Scott Carpenter is standing in middle of front row in a dark suit (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Heating coils and air-conditioning were added to regulate temperature and humidity, refrigeration to store perishable foods, and a larger laboratory. Fully recovered from his accident a year before, Scott Carpenter joined the SEALAB team in La Jolla, California ready to become an aquanaut. The first team of divers moved into the habitat on August 28, 1965 along with Carpenter. Two separate teams worked fifteen days each in the habitat, but Carpenter remained for the entire thirty day duty. This world was totally different from the warm waters of Bermuda. Freezing temperatures and pitch black darkness obscured the diver’s work. Marine life posed dangers too; jellyfish, pufferfish, and others could penetrate wetsuits and leave painful welts. Despite these challenges, the SEALAB II team made headlines for their achievements, including a celebratory phone call from President Lyndon Johnson. In addition to collecting more data on saturation diving and pressurization, SEALAB II tested electrically heated wetsuits and conducted salvage operations off the California coast. The team also welcomed a new addition, but it wasn’t a diver or new equipment; a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy. The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program (MMP) trained animals to assist Navy personnel in rudimentary tasks and in the case of SEALAB, Tuffy was trained to ferry supplies between divers and the habitat. The results were mixed, but well enough to retain Tuffy for the next project. SEALAB II completed its mission on October 10, 1965 and the future looked bright for George Bond and his crew. Underwater exploration and deep-sea diving operations began to assume even greater importance in Cold War context. Humans were going further than had ever though possible.

CDR Carpenter performing inspections inside SEALAB II. His experience with SEALAB sparked a lifelong dedication to oceanography and marine conservation (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

These accomplishments, however, did not cement SEALAB’s permanence and shelter it from outside forces. As the Vietnam War consumed an ever-climbing cost of men and resources, funding for programs like SEALAB were given low priority. Experienced sailors, divers, and engineers were transferred to the South China Sea and left Bond’s program in disarray. It wouldn’t be for another four years before enough funding and materials became available for SEALAB III. Always wanting to improve upon the past, Bond upgraded the SEALAB II habitat in order for divers to conduct salvage operations and fishery studies. From these optimistic goals though, problems constantly set the SEALAB team back. Construction delays caused the majority of problems. New types of seals, gaskets, pressurized containers, and electrical lines were changing specifications on a constant basis. The result was ill-fitting parts causing air leaks in the main cabin which if left unresolved would have resulted in divers asphyxiating. The project exceeded budget and costs, further irritating Bond and his superiors. A date for submersion was finally set for February 15, 1969; five teams of divers would serve twelve day rotations off the coast of San Clemente Island, California. Another sudden change caught the SEALAB team off-guard; the depth of the habitat was increased to an unprecedented 600 feet (18 atmospheres of pressure). Bond became concerned since all previous tests had not occurred at that depth so the likelihood of failure was elevated. The divers were lowered into the water, but their insulated suits were not adequate enough to keep them warm. The crippling cold waters sapped their strength and when they arrived at the habitat, more problems arose. An interior neoprene seal failed causing helium to leak from the chamber. Unable to raise the habitat back to the surface, the diver needed to repair the seal themselves. It was during this repair that SEALAB experience its first human fatality. Berry L. Cannon, an electronics engineer, began convulsing and struggling to breathe. Other divers like Robert Barth tried forcing their breathers into his mouth, but muscle contractions prevented Cannon from opening his mouth. They moved back into the diving bell trying to resuscitate Cannon, but it was too late. His body was transferred to the San Diego Naval Hospital where the final autopsy report indicated the cause of death as carbon dioxide poisoning. An inquiry board was established to evaluate the events leading up to the tragedy. They learned that Cannon’s diving rig was not functioning properly; the carbon dioxide baralyme scrubber was empty meaning that carbon dioxide couldn’t be expelled from the system. This caused a backlog in the breathing mixture, thereby resulting in CO2 poisoning. Hypothermia was viewed as a contributing factor also given the extremely cold water.

The SEALAB III habitat being transported through San Francisco Bay in 1969. After four years of research and development and millions of dollars over budget, the structure was ready for testing. It still came plagued with problems from the beginning (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Berry Cannon’s death foreshadowed the death of SEALAB. As family and fellow teammates mourned this loss, potential culprits were never prosecuted. Officially the U.S. Navy ruled his death as an accident, but outside geopolitical forces arguably prevented them from arresting anyone at fault. A year prior, on January 23 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces, marking a major incident in the Cold War. John Craven, head of the Navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Project, claimed that any other negative press about the U.S. Navy wouldn’t be tolerated. With Cannon’s death and coupled with the escalating war in Vietnam, the SEALAB program ended and scrapped the SEALAB III habitat.

Bond’s dream of underwater living did not die with SEALAB though. In following years, other governments and the private sector took the lessons gained from Bond’s work and applied it to their own. Saturation diving meant that people could function underwater for extended periods of time and opened novel ways of working in the ocean. Today, the Office of Naval Research and its Undersea Medicine Program relies heavily on Bond’s work with their experiments in testing human endurance in underwater environments. Marine conservation groups rely on saturation diving to document natural and man-made disasters in the ocean and promote oceanic health. When it comes to exploring the ocean, scientists and divers can thank George Bond and the SEALAB team for blazing a trail to the bottom of the sea and opened up new ways of looking at our world.

Aquanauts for SEALAB II. Scott Carpenter is positioned in the front row, second from the left (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.

This Grad Life: Learning Experiences as a Graduate Student

Education has its milestones in a person’s life; their first day at school, high school graduation, acceptance into college, college graduation, etc. We put a major emphasis on what we learn and what we do with the knowledge we gain. I thought for many years that just doing well in school would have guaranteed a future career, but I was wrong. There’s far more to school that obtaining high marks and getting listed on the Honor Roll. I should have known then, but I understand now that making a push towards what I want in my career stems from the drive to make your mark.

Attending graduate school and earning my MA in History was one of the best life decisions I made. Following my graduation from the University of Arkansas, there were absolutely zero job prospects in the history field. No state or National parks were hiring and neither any museums within a hundred mile radius of home. After securing a job with an auto parts company, I began working in their shipping and receiving bay where I put together orders and conducted inventories. After about two weeks there while standing in front of the derelict counter and computer with a malfunctioning monitor, I said out loud, “This sucks. I’m going back to school and do something to get a history job because I’m going to go insane here.” For a year I put up with overbearing managers who wanted to fire me because they wanted to feel superior over someone who had a college degree (I wager that only a handful of those there actually completed high school). There was no A/C, heating, or any functioning ventilation of any kind, so it was brutal in the summer and winter. The job did mandate that I become forklift certified so that was one upside I guess. All the while, I’m squirreling money away to go back to school. I spent weeks researching different schools and their graduate programs until I landed upon Emporia State University, located in Emporia, Kansas. I was amazed to find out that not only did they accept my application, but offered me a job as a Graduate Teaching Assistant! I would have been thrilled to just study, but to have gainful employment at the university was a significant bounty. After submitting my two weeks notice, I began packing my bags and I moved to Kansas.

Returning to  the academic environment was a smooth transition for me. I found that I can achieve peak productivity in an academic environment as a student because of all the learning possibilities. Armed with a graduate assistant position and after meeting my faculty counterpart, I was ready to return to the history world. For two years, the time I spent working alongside the faculty and students was incredibly rewarding. Graduate student colleagues were some of my best confidants out there in school and the times we spent rambling and ranting about our research filled long hours at Mulready’s Pub. There were six of us in a small, shared office with graduate students from the English Department and we all got along swimmingly. There were times the stress was visible; fast-approaching deadlines, trouble verifying sources, dealing with the politics of academia, working late hours grading papers and tests. You could always count on having to do some amount of work. Anyone in that office who said they had nothing to do was outright lying.

One piece of advice that I’d share with other graduate teaching assistants is that when you’re selected to lead a lecture or session, always find something to engage the students and have them participate collectively. Right off the bat in my first day of class, students in back rows were asleep, sneakily checking their phones, or finding some way to appear busy to cover their lack of discipline. That perspective from the front of the classroom was not new to me (having delivered presentations before) but in the role of educator, you find ways to uplift the students and encourage them to study what they might slough off as just a mandatory course box on their degree plan. You may find that an interactive quiz, interactive primary sources, using historical artifacts, or something similar can bring students to both a better understanding of the material and greater respect for the subject. Not every student reacts the same way and not everyone can garner the same level of interest. I struggled with that because I wanted everyone to emulate the passion that I had, but I accepted later on that not everyone would and it allowed me to refocus my teaching energy.

Before the first semester began, I vowed to steer clear of the cliche office politics that came with the territory of academia. Instead, I found myself right at the center. Full disclosure, I was not privy to many discussions taking place in the Social Sciences Department itself, but I was there to receive their decisions, many of which I disagreed. I hit upon the idea early in my studies to pursue a public history path. Public history centers on researching and portraying historical subjects in a manner easy to public education and bring widespread notice to the general public. This is ideal for those wanting to work in a museum, library, archives, or a historical park. I knew that was what I wanted to do career wise and I soon hit upon my thesis idea. In 2010, I spent time studying overseas at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and became obsessed with my Scottish heritage. I quickly connected with some local Scottish groups back home in Missouri and took that passion with me to Kansas. The idea of interviewing Scottish-Americans, recording their experiences, and seeing how people learn about historical topics through their heritage practices sounded golden. At least it was to me, but to the faculty, it took some convincing. Ultimately my advisor supported me wholeheartedly, one committee member remained a mix of cautiously optimistic and skeptical, and the third endorsed it because of the oral history approach I used for interviewing candidates. I had my share of obstacles, especially with the faculty and administration, but I endured it and finally walked across the stage with my new MA History degree.

My advice for graduate students: never let any office politics get in the way of your degree. Your research, the sole purpose of you being there, should not be held hostage by the actions of some squabbling professors who don’t like each other. You aren’t accepted into the program to be a pawn, you’re there to pursue a passion that shapes your future career path. I remember telling my colleagues in numerous ‘Mulready meetings’ that our research shouldn’t be held hostage to advance one professor’s agenda over another.

Another great demand that graduate school makes is one that lies with yourself. Work-life balance isn’t just for your full-time job, but with school also. Achieving that balance was difficult for me because I was went full-bore into my schoolwork, all the time. There was some venting with exercise and swimming at the school gym, but looking back I think I could have done better.

When you look back on an experience, you want to ask yourself; was it worth it? In my case, yes. I got my degree, secured a job with the National Archives, and now I’m finally applying my history knowledge to my job, which is something I’m immensely proud.

Teaching History During These COVID-19 Times

The title of this article should go without saying that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered human interaction. Social distancing, face masks, temperature checks, travel bans, and stay-at-home orders have filled the nightly news, airwaves, and social media feeds for months. Working remotely has become the standard for those who can perform their jobs from home (present company included). For those who are suffering a more stressful situation, they’re filing for unemployment or cutting costs to fit a budget that barely supports them. But this pandemic goes beyond economic loss: family members, friends, and loved ones that have succumbed to this disease are traumatized forever. It’s no doubt that 2020 will be left forever with the pandemic’s mark.

All levels of society made adjustments to their normal operations. They changed their hours, points of contact, limited capacity, strict physical distancing; anything to significantly reduce human contact. One sector that was stopped dead in its tracks was education. Schools at all levels gradually closed throughout the winter and by early spring, public schools and universities shut their doors. In the United States local options still kept some institutions open, but the majority of schools closed to keep the transmission of COVID-19 down in the student population. Other countries in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia implemented country wide closures until further notice. Only the government would grant approval for re-openings and only then under strict guidelines.

Cue the explosive rise of distance learning and Zoom classrooms! To be honest, I never even heard of Zoom prior to the pandemic. Distance learning isn’t exactly a novel concept though. People were taking correspondence courses since the mid-20th century and educational software has made it possible to obtain college degrees from schools hundreds of miles away. What’s different in 2020 though is that online classes in real-time are replicating the traditional classroom experience in an interactive, digital format. Simultaneously, learning institutions such as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Park Service (NPS), the Smithsonian, and hundreds of others have taken to social media, webinars, and virtual tours to promote their holdings and conduct classroom work. This provides a unique way to teach history to the general public. They bring the content to you via computer.

From a research and teaching perspective, history has always required primary documents to preserve the historical record for educational use. Traditionally, people needed to search extensive holdings online and then (if they weren’t digitized) they had to make arrangements to view the records in person at the holding location. Certain holdings weren’t available online at all so in-person research was the only option. Since the pandemic closed many of these institutions or limited them to completing emergency work (needing pertinent medical information as an example), they had to make access possible through the internet at an exponential rate. Educator resources also needed to be made available online and for history teachers, projects such as DocsTeach, History Hub, and a host of research websites have provided great historical content to engage students virtually. Distance learning is not without its flaws though. Internet accessibility and the required tools are not equal by any means. Without trying to explain the dense jungle of copyright infringement and exceptions, educators have worked tirelessly to bring as much content as possible to their lessons that do not break any copyright laws. Equal access to learning tools is another issue. Not every school can afford to purchase tablets for their students and not every home has internet access which makes distance learning challenging. These obstacles need to be worked out on the community and policy level to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to learn from the same resources.

Improvisation is the theme of COVID-19 pandemic. Surely you’ve seen the social media videos of people building impromptu roller coasters, beaches, snowy mountain slopes, and water parks in their backyard. People have come up with some ingenious ideas to replicate what COVID-19 has cancelled. There are plenty of ways to supplement learning too! You can share books with neighbors, take a virtual tour of a museum or park, make some historical arts and crafts, or perform a historical re-enactment! In grade school, we learned about the Lewis and Clark expedition through crafting and my teacher explained how they were used. This was a fantastic way to expand upon the history rather than only reading it in a textbook. I made a rabbit fur lined leather journal and wrote in some entries about the expedition, complete with sketches of animals Lewis and Clark saw on their journey (pronghorns, bison, elk, etc.) My teacher was so impressed that she put my journal on display in the school library (it fed my 12-year old ego so much it was almost dangerous). Immersive activities like these put the lesson in a new dynamic, making you think about the history in a novel way. Sometimes a tactile approach like this can be good depending on how you learn best.

Throughout it all, we shouldn’t forget about the socio-economic issues being highlighted throughout this pandemic. Communities see the reliance that families have on their school system when schools are replaced with distance learning. Students of families living at or below the poverty line aren’t receiving school meals or receiving special educational training to assist with learning disabilities. Additionally, working parents needed to make adjustments with their work schedules to accommodate their children at home if they can. While some families can have that option of homeschooling children and helping with distance learning, a large section of the population has struggled to keep both food on the table and children educated with the resources at hand. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic indeed stretches far beyond the medical data and the loss of life. It has lifted a window shade on what our society is like and what we can do to improve it for everyone.

Teaching and Engaging Students about History

Being told what to do and how is a precarious position. This is especially true for younger people, sitting at their desks in a classroom. In my teaching days, witnessing a student tweeting on their phone or falling into a pseudo-sleep is nothing new. Unfortunately, that situation is difficult for both student and educator. I always had thoughts running around on my mental racetrack on how to shock them back into attention. Should I yell or scream? Threaten their grades? Make some vague reference to a future test question? All good and viable options. However, both educational and personal professionalism demand something more. An approach that galvanizes the audience to want to learn. The greatest wisdom ever bestowed to me in graduate school was one simple question: ‘Why should I care?”

Well, think about it, why should I care? This question compelled me to analyze not only why I study history, but how it was possible to convert my students to the same philosophy. Back in April 2014, I posed that question to my U.S. History since 1877 class. Initial reactions were somewhat tepid, whereby they returned lukewarm answers; ‘because it’s a required class for my major’ was the common denominator. A few gems stood out, such as ‘because history helps me understand where society went wrong and teaches us where to not screw up.’ Sitting at my desk, I decided that night to seriously contemplate on the fact that changing how we present information in the classroom can have a twofold approach: increase student engagement and stimulate their motivation to learn the material. Professors, teachers, and other educators develop customized lecturing styles over the course of their career which plays to their strengths. Here are some tips to have an attentive classroom:

Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris, circa 15th century

1. Active questioning: I define this as opening every lecture with a board question on the subject matter that every student needs to answer by the end of class. Openings like these send the message that the source material contains themes, subjects, and important material needed to understand the broader narrative that you’re teaching everyone. For example, open with a question about the causes, weapons, or major actions during World War I depending on the context of the WWI lecture being taught. I asked my students why would Great Britain ingratiate itself with affairs on the European continent, such as the July Crisis, and how that further led them down the path to total war? Provide such information throughout the lecture and you might be surprised over how they respond.

2. Related material: People find it easier to comprehend something when they can relate it to something commonly referenced or understood. This opens up multiple paths for students because this familiarity can prove crucial while studying. Example: using the geopolitical problems existing in the Middle East and Africa and relating them back to the European colonial historical period. You can think of any modern context to connect to the lecture, but it helps students in the long run.

3. Popular culture: this can be a slippy slope and a majority of students consume a large amount of information from social media and popular culture. I remember when the ‘Beowulf’ movie was released at the same time we were reading the epic poem in my senior English class. My teacher, Mr. Smith, said outright that if anyone saw the film and tried to pass off the plot in class, they would immediately receive a ‘F’ grade. I believed him too; he was not a teacher to trifle with in the slightest. That being said, some pop culture references can yield good results, but only if used in an educational and informative matter. How it’s presented in a popular view is not necessarily historically factual.

4. Learning yourself: We’re all still students when you think about it. We learn something new everyday and being any degree of educator is no different. New discoveries, documents, sources, or anything can not only interest you (being your area of expertise) but can interest your students as well. If you’re excited about something new, there’s a possibility they will reciprocate those emotions.

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509

There has never been a more nobler experience than teaching in my opinion. Minds are shaped by your words and actions everyday. The world is greatly impacted by the students who enter the working world everyday and the teachers who shaped them have just as much impact on the world themselves. Don’t let your students snooze through a lecture or spend their hours glued to a smartphone. A plethora of knowledge is waiting to be seized and utilized for all of humanity. Who knows, maybe we’ll finally build those colonies on Mars in my lifetime so I can go Total Recall on my neighbors.

Thinking Critically About History

Have you ever taken part in a conversation where you have an epiphany? Recently I sat down with some folks and while we talked about a great many things, the most poignant was why we thought history was important. Common answers we exchanged pointed to studying in understanding our past, or looking into how we’ve changed as a society. Just read the news and one can see the turbulent forces we face as a society today (and with the COVID-19 pandemic, historians in every succeeding generation will discuss it in-depth). Many people look to history as an afterthought, but there’s something to be gained by seeing the past.

In the past 40 years, our society has homogenized through popular culture. We find new interests to keep our attention focused until the next pop culture cycle. A hundred years prior, before Netflix and even radio, people gathered as communities of all types to preserve a common identity. Whether they be churches, cultural groups, or fraternal organizations, community and history were blended together in a social setting. People shared a history that they could learn about together and it bonded us together. Slowly through, we moved away from that communal discourse. Institutions that had significant community involvement are aging with almost no new members to replace them. History is unfortunately a casualty from this slow decay. How can that collective historical and public memory survive without a younger generation to carry on?

History is infinitely layered and complex that it’s impossible to find a simple answer to anything. There’s no perfect response to why the Confederacy fought the Civil War, or how the Cold War ended. In an time when we want immediate, simplistic answers, people begin to dangerously misinterpret history. Therein lies the danger; as cultures change, how we interpret history changes. Critical thinking about our historical narratives are crucial. By examining a narrative in a multitude of lenses; economic, political, racial, gender, ethnic, etc. we develop a complex, but intensively rich knowledge that’s central in understanding a people’s history. We should continuously ask ourselves ‘why is this important?’ ‘why should I care?’ and ‘how will studying this improve our lives?’.

Remember that history happened and there’s nothing to change our past. It exists so that we can understand and learn from mistakes. Should we change street names, remove statues, or rewrite narratives? Only as a society should we think critically about decisions that impact our belief in history’s purpose.