“Visible Language” Consulting

I’m going to pimp my own work for a moment here. I’m acting as a bit of a historical consultant to the WSC Avant Bard production of Visible Language, a musical in ASL and English about the battle between oralism and manualism (speaking vs signing) in the 1890s. I had no connection with the development of the play itself – it was created by Mary Resing in 2009 – but they’ve asked me to do some history-related work for this production. I’m inordinately proud to have been asked; being recognized as an expert and a professional is always rewarding.

The first part of my work was a blog post that I’m fairly proud of: The Real Deaf History that Comes to Life in Visible Language (archived here too). I’ve already mentioned it on Facebook, but if you haven’t read it and are so inclined, please take a look.

They also asked me to serve as a featured guest at a 30-minute post-show discussion. I said I was available for all four dates, and they said they’d let me know which date they thought would work best. The answer was delightful: they felt my contribution would be so important that they couldn’t pick just one, and asked if I could come to all four. So I’ll be at the Eastman Studio Theatre, in Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet, for the discussions following the Sunday matinees. Should be interesting! I hope people ask me things… :)

The Hard, The Concrete

I am an urbanist.

I put a word to this after sitting on the Hudson Line of Metro North recently. I was seated on the land side of the train, looking out at the cool old stuff, and I realized the Hudson River was out the other window. I dutifully took a picture, then resumed looking at run-down storage sheds and trainworks. It’s not that the river isn’t beautiful; I kayaked from Nyack to Chelsea Piers years ago, and it’s a gorgeous trip, and I’d love to see other natural wonders. I found the Grand Canyon and Cappadocia breathtaking. But if asked to choose, my preference tends toward the urban, not the natural; the historical, not the ageless.

I am an atheist; I am aspiritual.

I have no interest in religion or spirituality. I don’t have time for it. I call it mumbo-jumbo and turn my head to that which can be proven by the scientific method. No Sky Daddy, no homeopathy, no reincarnation. I am not particularly interested in science – I’m a historian, after all – but that’s where I put my faith. If someone is ill, good doctors will cure them, not prayers.

So I wonder, sometimes, if I’m a little too cold. I love and care about things and people as much as anyone can, sometimes too much. But do my tendencies mean I’m out of step with others? The vast majority of the world practices a religion; those that don’t still consider themselves spiritual in some way. Nature is often held out as a place to relax and recharge; I’d just as soon do that in a hotel room in the biggest cities on earth after a day of exploring them.

I don’t think being out of step is necessarily a bad thing. I have been out of step for more than 30 years. But I wonder, too, what life would be like if I tilted more to the soft and malleable instead of the hard and concrete.

History Through Databases

Link: Where Online Services Go When They Die

One of the chief difficulties in ancient historical research is finding source materials. Sometimes they simply aren’t there anymore – they’ve been burned, pillaged, destroyed, or simply lost to the ages. But as we move into the modern era, research becomes easier – preservation of materials is better, language is easier to wrangle, and there is more interest in keeping a historical record.

As we have plunged into the digital age, though, we have started to head back toward losing our records. This shouldn’t happen – it’s easy enough to store everything – but the sheer quantity of data being produced now still overwhelms our capabilities. I have seen years of forum discussion be lost to a corrupted database, which translates into a loss of oral-type history – the conversations those people had are gone forever (not that we didn’t try to get it back). The article linked above discusses an attempt to restore a walled garden called Prodigy that I was a member of, and the difficulties inherent in resurrecting data long thought inaccessible.

There are plenty of attempts to resist the death of online data – the Wayback Machine has been archiving the web since 1996, and the Usenet archive now housed at Google Groups has posts dating back to 1981. But the sheer amount of data (which, of course, includes walled gardens and the Deep Web) makes it virtually impossible to ever log everything. And so we will lose some of the little stories, the microhistories, despite our best efforts to preserve as much as we can. Some would say that not every single email needs to be saved – for example, my wife and I discuss dinner plans by email regularly, which is of interest to no one but the two of us. But what if, someday, someone wants to look at relationships and how two people communicate? It will be gone, because historians won’t have access to those servers. Unless, as the article notes, someone digs up a Gmail archive someday and extracts it to a usable format.

History Through Pleasant Company

Link: How the American Girl Dolls Books Taught Me to Love History

Yesterday I looked at history through video games, and today I have history through Pleasant Company. Why not “history through American Girl” or the dolls or the books? Because Mattel ruined the educational mission of Pleasant Company, that’s why.

Sure, there are still books written about the dolls, and there are still some historical dolls, but the days of historically-minded books with dolls to act out the story are over. Long-standing historical dolls are being discontinued left and right even as new friend dolls pop up from the stories, because they can sell more dolls and clothes that way. Who needs Kirsten (American Prairie, 1854) anymore, when you have the pink-and-blonde girl of today, Isabelle, who loves ballet?

Mattel has gone full-on cash cow with American Girl. Now, Pleasant Company always was about selling things, but like the author of the article linked above, I used to love the historical books. I went to tea parties with the authors. AG in the Pleasant Company era cemented a love of history in that author, myself, and many other young girls. Today, Mattel is just churning out as much as possible without any interest in historical education, and it’s a far cry from the old days.

History Through Video Games


Link: The Assassin’s Creed curriculum: can video games teach us history?

As a child, I played Oregon Trail and the Carmen Sandiego series – and now I’m a historian. I definitely think video games can augment history; they’re not a sole path to it, but one way to enhance students’ interest.

As an adult, I’ve played several of the other games listed. Civilization has never struck me as a historical game; I guess it is historically themed, but you’re not recreating the actual rise and fall of civilizations – you can make Gandhi a warlord if you want – so I don’t really find it accurate enough to be a teaching tool. JFK: Reloaded was intensely boring, because I’m not good at shooters, and that’s the entire game. I did enjoy shooting everybody before the car made the left turn just to see what would happen, but that was about it.

I hadn’t even heard of Waco Resurrection until this article, and something doesn’t sit right with me for it. I think there are certain levels of real historical tragedy that are acceptable to recreate as a game – the Battlefield series is on such a massive scope that it’s not personal. Oregon Trail is fictionalized, which is another way of distancing oneself and allowing historical interpretation to proceed; this seems to be the case in 1979 The Game, which is also mentioned by the article as gamification of the Iranian Revolution. But Waco Resurrection feels a bit too much like a hypothetical “Jonestown: The Musical” wherein Congressman Ryan sings a lament before his murder.

The key to teaching history through video games, though, is to use them in schools. That’s where I played Oregon Trail, and lessons went along with it (sometimes). If you just have kids blowing up Germans without understanding why, it’s the same as any other video game. I’d think many players would be unlikely to read supplemental material, and I’d love to see teachers incorporate, say, Call of Duty: Black Ops into lessons about the Cold War.

Grad School

I’m a Patriot now. I started grad school a few weeks ago, at George Mason University. I will be getting an MA in History, with a concentration in Applied History, and a specialization in US History. Basically I want to keep working in museums, but I wanted my education to be a little more broad than that, so I went for public history instead of museum studies.

I am already a professional historian. It’s weird to say, because I have always had a lot of preconceptions about what a historian is and does, but James Banner’s Being a Historian has convinced me that if I minored in History, made Deaf history my entire undergraduate focus, curated a history exhibit at a museum, and continue to curate and run a largely history-focused cultural museum…I am a historian.

But I could know more. Who couldn’t? Knowledge is good. So I’m going to school. As a bonus, it will get me more respect and higher pay.

It feels funny being a patriot, though. I’m really still more of a bison. I stopped bleeding green and gold after high school and WMC; I started bleeding buff and blue 7 years ago and the green and gold refuse to come back. I walk through the bookstore every week before class, looking for a shirt I could wear to be a proud Patriot, and I walk out empty-handed. Sure, they’re expensive, but I’ve paid more for Gallaudet shirts. Maybe after a few semesters, or after graduation, I’ll feel like I belong. Not yet.

I’m still learning.

Memorable Books

Two tags in two days. And it goes on the blog again!

10 books that have stayed with me, as requested by [info]gretchen_marie.

  1. History of the College for the Deaf, 1857-1907 by Edward Miner Gallaudet
  2. Aftermath by LeVar Burton
  3. A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
  4. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language by Nora Ellen Groce
  5. Macho Sluts by Pat Califia
  6. Alice by Sara Flanigan
  7. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  8. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
  9. Hiroshima by John Hersey
  10. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides


Nobody ever tags me on those viral Facebook things, but a friend of mine did. I wouldn’t normally do it, but this one asks what you’re thankful for, and I think it’s a worthwhile opportunity to stop and think about that. You’re supposed to do three a day for five days, but I was never very good at following directions – so here’s 15 all at once.

I am thankful for:

  1. The wonderful people that led me into my current career. Shirley, Bob, and Jane each contributed something very special to getting me into the museum field, and I’ve never been professionally happier.
  2. My two cats’ refusal to die while I was gone. When I moved to Japan in 2012, Truffle was already pretty old, I knew he might not be around when I got back. While I was in Japan, YumYum got pretty sick and I worried that she wouldn’t be around either. Well, Truffle is still my old man at 18, and seems just fine except he’s gone deaf; YumYum gets medicine every day but she’s as feisty as ever.
  3. How easy it is to be vegetarian in the US. It’s not something I necessarily maintain overseas, not that I go very often, because sometimes it just isn’t a reasonable, rational decision in other countries. But in the US, I can follow my heart and eat well.
  4. My mom and dad being in relatively good health, with no major life-threatening conditions.
  5. My wife’s sacrifice to let me follow my dreams. I went back to undergrad. I went to Japan. Now I’m in grad school. And she loves me enough to support me through it all.
  6. My chronic urticaria being in complete remission for the time being. It’s been in remission before and come back, but for now I’m doing well and glad of it. (Those of you who have known me a long time may recall that I’m allergic to my own blood.)
  7. The modern technology that lets me stay in regular contact with friends in nearly every US state, France, Japan, the UK, Canada, and the Caribbean. I would hate to go back to the pen pal days – although my 7th grade pen pal in France is now a Facebook friend!
  8. America’s Nutrition Facts labeling that allows me to monitor what I’m putting into my body. The ingredients list could use some clarification, but at least I know something. Many countries don’t have that.
  9. Climate control, and being able to afford it. I have a friend whose aunt can’t afford propane to heat her home in the winter. I’m sitting here in a nice cool room during a heat wave. I’m lucky to have a warm/cool place to be when I come out of the cold/heat.
  10. The NAD kicking Netflix’s butt so I have subtitles on pretty much every show I want to watch! Ditto for the FCC on TV.
  11. Friends, obviously. If I named names, this list would be really long. But I love them.
  12. Western pharmaceuticals. From headaches to panic attacks, I wouldn’t be without them.
  13. Good enough transit infrastructure that I can get around town without having a car. It’s not easy by any means, but it sure beats, say, where my uncle lives in Arkansas.
  14. A life inside and outside the bubble. I love Gallaudet so much, and I’m thrilled to have a place there, but I like reaching outside sometimes, too.
  15. Growing older and wiser. I have seen myself grow. Sometimes I still slip up, but I’m getting better, and I’m proud of myself for it. Keep up the good work, me!

29 Weird Museums from Mental Floss

Mental Floss had a video called 29 Weird Museums Preserving Our History. It’s not subtitled, only museum names and cities are printed on the screen, and there’s no way to get additional information. So, being a museum person these days, I found their websites and made a list.

  • Kansas Barbed Wire Museum – LaCrosse, Kansas
    • Part of the Rush County Historical Society.
  • The Spam Museum – Austin, Minnesota
    • “Pack the family car for a meat-packed day of fun!”
  • Museum of Bad Art – Somerville, Massachusetts
    • I’d love to know how you curate something like this.
  • National Museum of Funeral History – Houston, Texas
    • Check out the fantasy coffins from Ghana.
  • Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia – Burlingame, California
    • Also home to the Classic Toy Museum and the Banned Toy Museum.
  • Mütter Museum – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    • Home of the famous Soap Lady.
  • Museum of Questionable Medical Devices – Minneapolis, Minnesota
    • Closed, but the website lives on, and some artifacts have been transferred elsewhere.
  • Leila’s Hair Museum – Independence, Missouri
    • Echoes of the Victorian era in museums, when the collection itself took precedence over interpretation.
  • Vent Haven Museum – Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
    • The world’s only museum dedicated to ventriloquists and their dummies.
  • Icelandic Phallological Museum – Reykjavik, Iceland
    • They have a list of Honorary Members. I snickered.
  • Washington Banana Museum – Auburn, Washington
    • The website has lots of pictures but doesn’t tell me why bananas are important.
  • Giant Shoe Museum – Seattle, Washington
    • I don’t understand why this wasn’t part of the AAM conference last month.
  • Meguro Parasitological Museum – Tokyo, Japan
    • They seem to actually do a lot of research. I wonder if I can order a phone strap from overseas.
  • Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum – Yokohama, Japan
    • It’s really mostly a store and food court area. There’s also the nearby Cup Noodle Museum.
  • Burnt Food Museum – Arlington, Massachusetts
    • Apparently you can burn lemons.
  • International Museum of Towing and Recovery – Chattanooga, Tennessee
    • I am both too impressed and too perplexed to comment.
  • Museum of Clean – Pocatello, Idaho
    • Don’t miss the chimney sweep dress-up photo opportunity!
  • American Sign Museum – Cincinnati, Ohio
    • The name kind of throws me off because the word after “American Sign” in my experience is usually “Language.”
  • Museum of Broken Relationships – Zagreb, Croatia
    • It’s really not a bad idea, artists come up with some neat stuff. It’s really about the human story.
  • Beer Can Museum – East Taunton, Massachusetts
    • Aha. The website explains that the IMLS, a government agency, considers this type of museum a “collection of curiosities” and not a museum proper.
  • National Mustard Museum – Middleton, Wisconsin
    • They sure do keep their webpage updated – the current site says “Dads Love Mustard” which is apparently tied into Father’s Day last Sunday.
  • Spinning Top Museum – Burlington, Wisconsin
    • Now with added yo-yos!
  • Pencil Museum – Keswick, England
    • Apparently factories in the area have been making pencils since 1832.
  • Lock Museum of America – Terryville, Connecticut
    • But it’s not the only lock museum. Not even in the US.
  • The Lamp Museum – Bruges, Belgium
    • The website is only in Dutch or French, but I gathered that they are a lamp museum.
  • Sulabh International Museum of Toilets – New Delhi, India
    • I find it interesting that a museum dedicated to sanitation is in a country where large areas are unsanitary.
  • Bigfoot Discovery Museum – Felton, California
    • “Attract & edutain the public with the facts about mystery primates around the world.” Edutain, folks.
  • Gelato Museum – Carpigiani, Italy
    • They have a workshop that allows you to explore the emotions you feel while eating gelato.
  • Kuching Cat Museum – Kuching, Malaysia
    • If I ever go to Malaysia, this will be my first stop.