Geoff Eley

Geoff Eley
Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History,
University of Michigan

Tottered on: 23 September 2006
Temperature: 67 F
Ceiling: gloomy
Ground: wet cut grass
Wind: SSW at 12 mph


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TT with HD: Geoff Eley


[Ed. note: Some details about the talk mentioned towards the end of the conversation below are:

Rebecca Solnit: 'Out of the Ashes: Hope, Memory, Altered and Alternative Histories'
Wednesday, 27 September 2006; 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM
Institute for the Humanities, Room 2022, 202 South Thayer Street, Ann Arbor

More here.]

HD: Shall we?

GE: I'm very nervous about the coffee.

HD: Okay, well if you start to spill, just feel free to spill it onto the teeter totter, because I can just hose it down.

GE: Okay!

HD: Is this going to work?

GE: Yeah.

HD: Let's pause for a moment, and I'll get the standard picture taken. That way if it does start raining, we can flee inside and we can say we've done it ... ... This is the first game-day totter.

GE: Ever?

HD: Yes, well, I've only been doing it about a year--we're coming up on the one-year anniversary at the beginning of December--but from this I conclude that the Distinguished University Professorships don't come with free season passes to the football games?

GE: Right, that's certainly true. And I've yet to set foot in the stadium, after 27 years! [laugh]

HD: Really! Is that a matter of principle, or you just don't enjoy football?

GE: One thing I've never really acculturated to is American sports. So I've no pro-active interest. I play soccer twice a week, so it's more about acculturation. I am pretty acculturated in general, I think.

HD: So if you play soccer twice a week, you have some appreciation for competition, there's some competitive side of you?

GE: It's more about aesthetics, actually.

HD: Really?

GE: Actually, I have very modest skills, which I've been able to cash in over here a bit more successfully than where I come from, so if I can do like three or four really good things in the course of a game, it makes a huge difference to the quality of life in the following week [laugh], if I'm honest. I play in the Ann Arbor Soccer Association. It's a voluntary association, there are three seasons--spring, summer and fall--and they each last probably a couple of months. You're distributed randomly to teams, allowing for age and skill level, and so on and so on. And if you happen to get on a crappy team, on which people don't show up or ...

HD: ... crappy from the point of view of organization, then, as opposed to skill ...

GE: ... it's partly that, but you need, for instance, a dedicated goal-keeper, somebody who wants to play in goals. You need some young people ...

HD: ... to run up and down the field ...

GE: ... right. And you need two or three really good players, because that brings up the general level. You need people who are going to show up! Because it's seven-a-side on a reduced field with unlimited substitutions, so if people don't show up, you're in this dispiriting situation of not even being able to field substitutes, or even a full team some weeks. It's really demoralizing, so it's not necessarily about winning, although you know that certainly helps.

HD: So it's not the sort of league where people head-butt each other in the chest, I take it?

GE: No, there are one or two rogue players ...

HD: ... but you're not one of those.

GE: No, no, no. One or two who are prone to kind of lose it a little bit. After all, American masculinity is what it is! [laugh]

HD: [laugh] Yes, it is what it is! And given that it is game day, and there's this fierce competition going on over in the stadium, I wanted to ask you, How do historians compete? I mean, mathematicians, they compete, I imagine, by trying to be the first to prove some conjecture or other. Or people in the life sciences, maybe they compete with each other trying to be the first to sequence the DNA of some species or other. So how do historians compete, or is that even a fair question to ask?

GE: No, it's a really interesting question to ask. Let's think for a minute. To the degree that historians compete, then it's probably as much to do with the generic condition of being a graduate student, or a non-tenured professor, on tenure track and needing to keep the momentum going. So it's all about the dialectics of being a professional scholar. Unless as a graduate student, you're in an institution which admits more students than they want to support, that weeds people out etcetera, etcetera, etceterta---so say if you're in Chicago rather than Michigan, because we're very good in that respect. That produces competition in the form of anxiety about one's future, right? And particularly if you know that at the end of the first year, a bunch of your peers are just going to be discarded, then that creates a really bad scene. So there's all of that.

HD: So there's a sort of team-level competition between departments?

GE: Not really. It's more that there are those drives and anxieties that are generic to being an academic. And one of the things I like about the institution here, and especially the history department, is that we work very hard against the bad things that can easily follow from that. But then let's see, how do historians compete? Well, there's the drive to publish, which my generation has especially--and then subsequent generations to varying degrees--really internalized. I came into the university in the late 60's over there, but I think it's the same kind of story. During the big higher education expansion in the 1960's, the big expansion of student numbers, in Britain that was really when history was professionalized.

HD: Not until then?!

GE: Well, there was a historical profession, but there was no completely established and institutionalized PhD requirement. So the typical thing in Britain would be that somebody might get a job before they finished their dissertation. Even after that time, actually, when you started having to do a PhD, they'd get a job before they finished, and then there was no need to finish it. And there was no stigma attached to that. Some of the most renowned historians of 1950's and 1960's didn't have a PhD.

HD: So who would be an example of someone like that?

GE: Oh, say, Christopher Hill, for instance. He was, whoops! [Ed. note: a coffee spill onto the totter]

HD: We'll keep you on the up end!

GE: Yes, keep it flowing that way! Christopher Hill was a 16th and 17th Century historian, Tudor-Stewart historian, British historian, Marxist, was head of the college where I was an undergraduate--so the Master of Bailliol College--and a very eminent historian. He died about three or four years ago, and published huge numbers of books, yet had no PhD.

HD: And in his obituary they didn't write at the end, But he didn't have a PhD?

GE: No, of course not. Actually, I wrote the official obituary for the Bailliol College record. No, it was just irrelevant. But when the universities first expanded in Britain in the early 60's to middle 60's, there was this huge need to recruit faculty, so that generation didn't necessarily have PhD's either. But from that time on, the PhD has become a standard requirement. The big expansion was over by the early 1970's, so by 1973 already--which is when I was starting to finish my own dissertation--there were no jobs. Well, I mean there were jobs, but not very many of them. By the time I got my appointment here--I was appointed in May of 1978, although I came a year later--there were almost literally no jobs for European historians in Britain. So that's the background against which I'm now going to answer the question about internalizing the drive, which is a kind of competitiveness, although it's not really. It's sort of a drive to 'do well' like to be really good. And in a context where it's clear that the stakes are really exacting, because there aren't many jobs etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So my generation really wanted to publish, and to publish a lot, publish quickly, and publish well. And that was partly because we knew there was so much dead wood behind us in these earlier generations. I think that was the drive we sort of internalized for that variety of reasons. Does that make sense?

HD: Yeah, I think so. So looking at the projects listed out there on your bio page of the [UM] History [Department] website of things you have worked on and are working on for the future, to me the most interesting one listed there was one described as 'long term' having to do with cinema. I think it's Cinema and the Construction of National Past? So, first question: Long term? Does that mean several years, decades ...

GE: ... it means when I've finished everything else and I can get back to it basically. Here's how that happened. I love cinema. I love watching films, talking about films, reading about films, and that's been true since I was a kid, growing up in Britain in the early 1960's, coming from my kind of background socially--it was very very low middle class, not much cultural capital. For a long time--because I came from a very small town where the cinemas were closing and there wasn't much opportunity to see art film or good film at the actual cinema--I saw most of it on the TV. So TV in the 1960's, and the cinema, was basically my window onto a wider intellectual and cultural world. Rather than fiction, for instance. See, I haven't read any of the classics of 19th Century English literature.

HD: Really!

GE: Still. See what I mean by no cultural capital. I haven't read any Dickens, for instance. These are shocking confessions! But on the other hand, I have a lot of cultural capital, so I'm a little bit of a paradox: I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I taught at Cambridge before I came, I'm English, I have the accent, though not the Queen's English. So I've got a lot of cultural capital in those ways, but in these terms I'm shockingly ignorant, you could say. On the other hand, I've seen virtually all those classics as BBC Sunday afternoon children's adaptations.

HD: Okay, so it's not as if you're not at least conversant in the material.

GE: Right, right. See, that's another form of competitiveness. It's not really competitiveness, it's the desire to catch up. I didn't have any of that when I was a kid. So I arrived in Oxford as a student with all these people who lived next door to novelists and so on, it's really about class obviously--about class and cultural capital--this constant desire to catch up.

HD: Or maybe just to fit in? To know what people around you are talking about?

GE: Well, 'fitting in', implies more of a kind of social arrival, whereas for me, it was always like protecting the difference that I had. I didn't want to be like those people in that sense. I wanted to know what they knew, and to know it better, so to speak.

HD: So in this phrase 'cinema and the construction of national past' who's doing the constructing? Are you as an historian looking at films that themselves have tried to construct some kind of national past ...

GE: ... yeah. They don't have to be about history per se. It doesn't have to be an historical film, a costume drama or whatever. In fact, in some ways, it's more interesting when they're not. It's what the films are doing ...

HD: ... so what the films are implicitly constructing as a past. But as opposed to an historian constructing the past by looking at a bunch of films and analyzing these films and based on what's going on in these films, constructing out of that some notion of the national past?

GE: It's both. I'm interesting in this at different levels. Again, I've got to start the explanation in the 60's when I was growing up, because there was this so-called New British Cinema--actually, I'm not sure whether it's called that or not now--it's this whole genre of films that appeared in the late 50's and early 1960's, which were really northern realist working-class social dramas. And they were incredibly important for me, very influential. They're all set in the late 1950's and the early 1960's, they all have a certain narrative of social improvement and social mobility, and they're all narratives of escape. So it's the young lower-middle class man on the make, or the young working-class man trying to escape from his family, community origins into a wider world of some kind. And classically those films have this moment in which the protagonist sort of stands on a hill above the factory chimneys or the pit heads and fantasizes escape. Some of these films actually do have fantasy in them. One is, for instance, called Billy Liar, in which the protagonist, Billy Liar, works for an undertaker and the whole film is constructed through his fantasies. Now if you look at that genre of films, obviously they contain a very highly developed common narrative about British society--not just in that moment, but understood in relation to a set of pasts. So that's the kind of thing that I'm interested in. I started getting interested in this in the early 1990's, mid-1990's, and I've published two or three essays already, ...

HD: ... you're talking about specifically on the topic of cinema ...

GE: ...yeah. And in various stages of in-progress also, and they're all constructed around a particular film, or maybe two or three films, which I want to do a close reading of and then set against this kind of larger contextual argument.

HD: So you're not seeking to do an encyclopedic study where you make sure you cover everything?

GE: No. I mean, I'll try and do that as well in the footnotes. So I want to both write about a particular film, and its genre, context and so on and so forth, but I also want to do the contextual work, both in relation to historiography and in relation to film studies. But I don't want to do a survey. The very first thing that I published was about ten years ago on this topic. It was really about the re-imagining of the working class, and the film that I chose is an extraordinary film by an independent British filmmaker called Terence Davies. The film is called Distant Voices, Still Lives. And the film is really about a working-class childhood, young adulthood, in Liverpool in the late 1940's to late 1950's. It's very autobiographical on Terence Davies' part and it's really about a violent working-class patriarch, and the violence that he perpetrates on his wife and kids--it's a son and two daughters. This is an incredibly bleak portrait of the working class, right? It's the opposite of this romance of the plucky, heroic British working man. That film was released, I think, in 1991 and Davies made a follow-up film called The Long Day Closes, which is a more elegiac kind of view of a working class childhood. But I wanted to ask the question, Well, what's going on here? What is this film speaking against? What is it deconstructing? What's the grain that it's brushing against? And what I'd argue, is that in the course of the 1970's and 1980's, of course, Thatcher-ism happened: de-industrialization, dismantle-ment of the welfare state. Essentially, the breaking apart of the post-1945 settlement, which was really a social-democratic settlement in all sorts of ways--created the social welfare state, and so on. That's what had been systematically dismantled in the course of the 1980's. It's not possible to imagine this film without that intervening process of change, without the wreckage of the de-industrialization and so forth. Of course, feminism is incredibly important to this kind of portrait of a violent, working-class father. It's impossible to imagine without feminism in the intervening thirty years--the contemporary women's movement, that is. You come out of that film with a completely different sense of working-class culture than you would've if you came out of say a Ken Loach film in the 1970's and 1980's. So I'm interested in trying to use films that I like, good films, complex films, that are--whether consciously, or in effect--really making arguments about historical change in this sense, changes that are very finely connected to images and understandings about national cultural and national past.

HD: When you say 'the national past', for this particular project, you're going to be focussing exclusively on British films?

GE: Originally it was going to be comparative--Britain and Germany--because I'm a German historian by original training. I've written a bit about Germany through film. I co-authored an essay about Schindler's List, for instance. But I think it's going to be about Britain. You know, it's very autobiographical as well, in that sense. I've been doing a lot of British history in the last few years.

HD: Do you suppose there's people who will breathe a sign of relief that, Oh, whew, Geoff Eley's going to steer clear of the German Cinema and I can have German Cinema to myself, I don't have to worry that he's going to say something insightful and interesting that I haven't thought of to say before?

GE: No, I don't think they care! [laugh]

HD: You don't think they care?!

GE: These worlds are, in inter-disciplinary terms, quite separate really, history and film. I mean they are and they aren't. We all talk about inter-disciplinarity these days, ...

HD: ... sure, you're like a parade example for this, being the Chairman of the German Department, your appointment's in History, and you're associated faculty in Film and Video, right?

GE: And I've been very heavily associated with a lot of what has produced this contemporary culture of inter-disciplinarity, which is incredibly important to the U of M now, which is actually quite recent in its present form but really dates from the late 1980's in my view. I really believe in it, I really believe in inter-disciplinarity. And part of my interest in this film project is to try and do both. Typically when historians were interested in film thirty years ago, then they would just sort of see film in a very simple way, as just another form of evidence ...

HD: ... just one more kind of document ...

GE: ... right. And wouldn't feel any need to educate themselves in film theory or in the methodologies of film studies and cinema studies. I mean, I'm exaggerating a bit, but you won't find much sophisticated reading of films in what historians have written about films until very very recently, I'd say.

HD: So even though knowledge or expertise in the area of film might inform what you're going to try to do as an historian, people who read whatever is produced at the end of this long term project, there'll be no mistaking that it's an historian who wrote it? As opposed to a film studies person?

GE: Well I aspire to speak to both. So I want to convince historians that if you want to write about film, then you've got to know what you're talking about. You really do need to educate yourself about how to read film and how to understand film in all its dimensions, everything that my colleagues in Film and Video--now Screen Arts and Cultures--do. But, I want to convince film studies people, who don't really care what historians ... not many of them read much history. My colleague, Johannes von Moltke, who's joint in German and Film and Video, certainly does, okay? But really, most people in film studies do this in a very spotty, and contingent, and selective and arbitrary way, in my view. So for instance, this essay that I published on Distant Voices, Still Lives, people in film studies couldn't care less, it seems to me. People in film studies who have written about that film, barely noticed that this essay appeared. It appeared in a volume edited by Robert Rosenstone, who's one of the historians who's really done this, in a volume called Revisioning History, in which he got a bunch of historians to choose a film and write about it from an historian's point of view. Which is intended to push this inter-disciplinary conversation along, but I'm not sure that it's had much real effect in film studies. I want to convince historians that you've got to learn how to talk about film, but I'd like to convince film studies people that you've got to do the kind of thick contextualizing of historiography and history that we believe in as historians. And we'll see. I'm a little doubtful.

HD: If you talk about a film as being a document, what that triggers in my head is the sheer volume of 'documents' that are being created nowadays in digital form. So I was wondering, just in general, does digital technology make your life as an historian easier, or does it just make it a nightmare? Because I'm thinking five years from now, if I'm an historian and I just want to look broadly at film and video, there's several billion gigabytes of information on GoogleVideo and YouTube, that if you wanted to be exhaustive, if you wanted to have any kind of claim to being thorough, even with digital tools to search through the stuff, it'd be quite a daunting task.

GE: Completely impossible. This ideal of exhaustiveness, which I think is really a part of historians' romance of the Archive, which I think we all have, but it's very hard to be specific about this. What makes an historian different from, say, a sociologist? Well, the Archive is a very important part of it--not in a fetish-istic kind of way. There are historians--not as many as there used to be hopefully--who took the view that you should go naked into the Archive, you should go into the Archive without preconceptions and just tell it like it is in accordance with what you uncover in those files. That's what I mean by fetish-izing the Archive. That's obviously daft, right?

HD: ... you mean to actually walk naked into the Archive?

GE: You've got to go in there with some sort of coherent questions and frameworks of understanding in order to allow you to select intelligently ...

HD: ... just to make the endeavor remotely tractable ...

GE: ... right. So this kind of idea of the past as being located in an Archive that's just waiting to be uncovered, and the true historian is the one who does that most exhaustively, it's obviously some sort of ideal to aspire towards, when we go to the Archive or we send our students off to the Archive. That exhaustiveness is really important. There is this sort of sense, that I think I subscribe to as well, that you've got to do your time in the Archive in order to qualify as a real historian. You've got to get your hands dirty ...

HD: ... you've got to blow some dust off some books ...

GE: ... yeah. But how we understand the Archive has really been transformed though over the last ten to fifteen years, in what qualifies as evidence, in what qualifies as an Archive in that sense. Obviously, it's all kinds of material. We've just been talking about film and visual evidence, but also oral history and all sorts of things--pictures that we can now use, because we're far more inter-disciplinary in that direction than tended to be the case in the past, and so on and so forth. But exhaustiveness, whichever dimension we consider that in, is obviously a complete fantasy now, a complete chimera.

HD: This past summer I took a trip over to the Clements Library, I was looking for some Civil War letters ...

GE: .. oh, yeah!

HD: And it's really quite amazing, because they actually let you touch and feel these letters that were written by these Civil War soldiers, Michigan soldiers who went off to fight sent these letters back home. And there's still a certain special-ness about them--I mean, there's a lot of them, if you were to set yourself the task of reading through all of them in a day--but relatively speaking, there's not that many, they're pretty rare. You know, if someone were to discover some more of them in an attic somewhere, I think the Clements Library would be quite interested in adding them to the collection. But there is a certain special-ness that in general is going lost now. Everything gets chronicled, everything is digitized. Google's motto is that you never have to throw anything away, but I think I kind of feel like I want somebody to take charge of throwing some stuff away. Or I want some of it to go missing through a natural process or natural evolution, because what's left then is that much more special.

GE: Yeah, I understand what you're saying. I'm not sure how different it's going to be. I haven't forgotten this question that you asked about the unmanageable kind of surfeit of stuff that we now have access to electronically. But for instance it seems to me that when there's so much then, of course, stuff hides. So I think this process of pursuit, and discovery, and the serendipity of finding, I think that's still going to be true ...

HD: ... just maybe in a different way of finding ...

GE: ... right, right. To go back to that question of whether it's scary or daunting or exciting ...

HD: ... or lamentable ...

GE: ... I think it's partly generational. It depends on where you come into this contemporary process of electronic literacy. And it's partly a matter of time and resources and help. There's one version of this process that we've experienced at the University during the last ten years, I'd say: the growth of first email, but then the use of word-processing more generally, and the use of electronic communication. In fact, it's kind of required us to do far more than we used to do, because previously the office did it. Now, for instance, there's no point, say, in giving a memorandum or a letter of recommendation to the office, because we're working on it ourselves and everybody uses the computer now. So in all sorts of ways, this is not a bad thing in itself. In a lot of ways, it's really a good thing, because word processing is a fantastic kind of enabler, it seems to me. It has a certain kind of institutional logic--because obviously an institution has an interest in labor saving and cost saving and so on, whether it's for committee purposes or teaching purposes--in which more and more transactions occur electronically.

HD: Do you have students submit papers electronically at all? Just skipping the step of printing it out onto a piece of paper?

GE: We have this CourseTools, which facilitates all of that kind of thing. You can put resources up, you can get students to submit things, put the syllabus up, have discussion strands running and so on. People do do that. There's so much that happens over email and electronically that I find that for certain things, it's very hard to keep track, for deadlines and so on and so forth, so that I need hard copy versions of certain things, like letters of recommendation. If it's not sitting on top of my desk, it's harder to get into my operative memory. If it's just in the [electronic] 'desktop' so-to-speak, then it just hides. And that's true of student papers as well, even if in the end I read them on the computer screen off of my hard drive ...

HD: ... you still need the physical object ...

GE: ... yeah. So it sort of varies. I think it varies hugely with individuals and I think it's probably enormously generational. Matt Lassiter, for instance, has things, I don't know how he manages this relationship to the electronic sphere. But I know a bunch of my graduate students are hugely more conversant and knowledgeable and adept, and exist completely inside the possibilities of the computer. I basically know what I know, and then I gradually acquire additional bits of knowledge. I also completely depend upon the computer.

HD: So are you teaching anything this term?

GE: Well, I'm chairing the German Department, as you know. And Chairs and Directors sort of set their own teaching. We're supposed to do some, you know? Which I certainly do. Basically I'm just teaching a graduate course each term while I'm Chair.

HD: So what does that work out to be for this term?

GE: In the History Department--see all my teaching is in History still--we have a required introductory class for all the new graduate students. It's a relatively smaller class--because it's very hard to know how many people are going to accept your offers of admission, and far more than we anticipated did a couple of years ago, which means that we've got to keep the admissions down now. We run this course in two sections each fall, and each is taught by two faculty from different fields. So I'm teaching one of those this term with, as it happens, my life-partner, Regina Morantz-Sanchez. She's a U.S. historian and I'm a Europeanist. So that's what I'm doing.

HD: So it's more or less a welcome-to-the-professional-study-of-history-as-a-graduate-student kind of course?

GE: It's more, These are all the different kinds of history that we do now and here are some windows onto them. And of course in this department, we want them to be theoretical, and comparative, and inter-disciplinary and be incredibly well-grounded in their field, so it's tough [laugh]. See, when I was a graduate student in the early 70's, you could read everything in your field. I mean, literally. Several times, in fact, before you went off to the Archive. Now it's insane the amount of stuff, even if you're going to graduate school in a department that isn't as inter-disciplinary, as comparative, as theoretical and so on, as this one, it would be impossible to imagine that you could achieve the kind of coverage of the secondary literature relevant to your main field that was completely feasible thirty years ago. The volume of scholarly production is just so vast now. And that really changes things. I think it's simultaneously very exciting for graduate students coming into a class like this now and actually quite scary. Because the stakes seem to be so high. There's so much that you need to know.

HD: So is there anything that you've been able to notice already in this group that they have as a group a noticeable gap in a particular area, or in some mode or discipline of thinking, where you think, Wow, it would really have been nice if their undergraduate teachers had taught them X, Y, or Z?

GE: Not really. I mean, to go to history graduate school these days, you've got to be pretty highly motivated. And increasingly, they'll have been out for a year or two and are coming back, so that also implies a kind of high level of motivation. Sometimes we get students who've done no history as an undergraduate ...

HD: ... oh really! None at all?

GE: Barely. Obviously, it's not all that common to have done none. We had a guy who came in, probably in '92, and I think he came from Cornell as an undergraduate, and had done virtually all of his undergraduate work in philosophy ...

HD: ... oh, I was going to say engineering and was prepared to be really surprised ...

GE: ... that would be more unusual ...

HD: ... philosophy is a little more plausible.

GE: Although I can think of one or two who, in terms of family expectations, were to be engineers as undergraduates and kind of realized that they really did not want to do that and so switched relatively late to being a history major. That's great when that happens, actually. You sort of feel well maybe you do have some effect in the classroom [laugh]. So this guy came in really with very little background in undergraduate history and that doesn't really matter very much necessarily. His name is Andy Donson and he now teaches at UMass Amherst. So. Is there anything that I've not answered that you asked? Oh, what have I noticed in the class? It's a very cosmopolitan group this time, and actually has been for a year or two, in the sense of coming from different parts of the world, and being interested in kind of a wide range of histories. It's great.

HD: Any home-grown product?

GE: From Ann Arbor?

HD: Well, Michigan.

GE: Actually, as it happens that's relatively unusual. I mean, I certainly take the view that people should go away. Not because we don't like them, [laugh] but because it's better. You've got to leave home.

HD: Well, before you go away from the totter, I wanted to ask you if you've heard of this Bike-In movie presentation that the ...

GE: ... the which?

HD: It's a play on the term Drive-In movie, but they're calling it a Bike-In movie, put on by the Ann Arbor Film Festival as a fund-raiser. I think it's going to be over on the University campus in the same vicinity where they had the Art Fair this year. So anyway, it's a fundraiser for the Ann Arbor Film Festival tomorrow, but you're probably not planning to go to that if you've just now heard of it?

GE: I don't bike, either. That's another impediment!

HD: Well, at least you drive a very environmentally friendly car [Ed. note: a Prius].

GE: Yeah, I don't ride a bike, because I never had a bike as a kid, because my mother thought it was too dangerous.

HD: Are you saying that you don't know how to ride a bike?

GE: Well, I have ridden a bike, but not very confidently. [laugh] I actually first rode a bike in Germany, when I went to Germany when I was 15.

HD: Germans are big on bicycles.

GE: It was sort of ridiculous. She didn't want me to have a bike, because she thought it was too dangerous.

HD: Well, nowadays we've got better helmets. In fact, back then I don't think ...

GE: ... no, that had yet to be invented as a practice.

HD: So do you have anything else on your mind today? We really lucked out on the weather.

GE: Yeah. Hmm, do I have anything else on my mind. Well, I've got a ton of things to do.

HD: I bet, so I appreciate your taking the time to teeter totter.

GE: Oh, there's this great talk on Wednesday that I've organized. There's a writer called Rebecca Solnit, who's done all sorts of things. She did this terrific history of walking ...

HD: ... walking?!

GE: ... walking, called Wanderlust. And she's done a whole bunch of very interesting critical travel writing of different kinds. She published about a year ago, in an updated kind of edition, a political kind of tract called Hope in the Dark, about how is it possible to be politically optimistic in dark times. And she's giving a talk on Monday, so that's on my mind, it's a lot of organizational ...

HD: ... now, it's on Monday, or ...

GE: ... did I say Monday? It's Wednesday, sorry!

HD: Is that a History Department function or is it open to the public?

GE: It's completely open to the public. The Humanities Institute is the main sponsor, so it's in the Humanities Institute. It's in the new building on Thayer.

HD: Is that right across from the old Olga's?

GE: No, that's the Frieze Building. You know, there's always the controversy about the Frieze Building. That's opposite Olga's. This new building is behind the old Olga's.

HD: Ohh. So it's right next to Zanzibar's?

GE: Uh, yeah, well, the block over.

HD: And it's in the afternoon?

GE: Four o'clock. It's always a bit nerve-wracking when you put a lot of effort into bringing somebody in. And there's so much that goes on at the University ...

HD: ... so will it fall to you to host her?

GE: Well, no, the Humanities Institute has a great staff, and they'll do all of that. I'll introduce her. It's always a bit nerve-wracking because you don't know if you're going to get an audience that's commensurate with the occasion.

HD: What's the seating capacity of the room?

GE: I actually don't know, because it's a new building. I haven't been in there yet. I assume it's fairly capacious.

HD: I'll see if I can't stop by.

GE: She's good.

HD: Well, listen thanks very much for coming to ride the teeter totter.

GE: This was fun.