Last Night’s Talk: What Is History Good For?

What Is History Good For? (A Talk)

Anne Falgout of LEDA was gracious enough to invite me to speak before the 705 group last night. 705, as I understand it, a networking opportunity for young professionals, and as such it represents a group of self-motivated individuals who may very well prove to be our area’s next leaders.

The group has been considering various kinds of foundations within and for the community at large: economic, social, cultural. I was one of two speakers invited to address the cultural foundations for the Lafayette area. In particular, I was tasked to speak about the past leading to the present. The other speaker, Jennifer Guidry, was asked to speak about the present leading to the future.

As my the notes from my talk make clear, I sort of decided to go a different route. (The unorthodoxy of the notes is to be blamed entirely on Henry Glassie, who once showed me notes for a talk he was giving that looked much like this. It’s a marvelous way to compose a talk — and much of this talk was composed by hand in a notebook and later transcribed into OmniOutliner to make the notes more readable at the time of the talk.)

Without further ado, here are the notes from last night’s talk:

I want to begin with a thought experiment.
If you’re older than forty in this audience, picture your high
school yearbook photo.
If you’re younger than forty, then picture any photo from your
parents or grandparents wedding album or from the early years of
their marriage and childrearing (traditionally, by the way, where
photos are densest — as someone who has spent a lot of time
browsing other people’s photo albums).
How much are you like that person in the photo?
How much do you want to be like them?
And how much are you glad that either you have changed or
times have changed?
Photos are great reminders, markers, of the past.
But they are terrible indicators of the present.
This place we’re in now, Vermilionville, is one giant photo album,
capturing a moment in our potentially collective past.
But that’s all it is. A photo album.
And one not without its problems.
First, it’s not really our collective past, but only one
facet of it.
Vermilionville leaves out the two largest ethnic
immigrant groups in south Louisiana:
Second, the photos have been photoshopped, changed to fit
our imagination of what the past may have looked like,
which is not necessarily what it actually looked like.
This is rather like keeping the insert in the photo
frame you buy at Target and saying it’s your family
because, you know, you too have a spouse and two kids.
Why begin with this cautionary tale?
Because this tendency to sacralize the past, especially only one
version of the past is dangerous and keeps us, even those of us
who are really Cajuns and Creoles from seeing ourselves as we
really are
and the value in who we are,
and the value in what we do.
What I want to leave you with today, if I leave you with
nothing else, is just how much you yourselves are part of
and that you and your friends and your family are part of
And you should treat yourselves and them with the
same seriousness that you treat history
And, because we are in south Louisiana where serious play
matters, that you should treat history as something to be
played with.
This isn’t how I imagined this talk, but I had an interesting
experience last weekend.
I was at the Wooden Boat Festival in St. Martinville.
I had spent the morning in the dappled light of the banks of
the Bayou Teche.
The christening of the wooden pirogue.
Official boat of Louisiana.
Pirogue is not French.
It’s from the Spanish piragua and they probably first
used it to describe dugout canoes they encountered in
To be honest, the dugout canoe exists around the
They aren’t special.
At the other end of the park from the newly-christened pirogue,
however, was a twenty-six foot, sleek, aluminum-hulled craft with U.
S. Coast Guard markings.
The thing was magnificent.
Two two-hundred horsepower engines hung off its stern.
The welds along the hull were beautiful.
They have to be, the boat maker, Jimmy Gravois, told me.
The Coast Guard is so finicky about the welds on its
board, he makes sure that each weld line is done by one
man, so that the welds are consistent. If there are two
parallel welds, he puts two men on the hull.
How many do you make? I asked Gravois.
I have to make one a week, he replied.
Wow, you must have a number of people in your shop.
Now, think about that for a minute.
Everyone there was gathered around a wooden pirogue.
Heck, there was a video crew there recording the
christening and there to film the parade of the putt
No one was paying much if any attention to Gravois.
But he pays 120 people full-time salaries to make
aluminum boats that are shipped all over, it
turns out, all over the world.
Now, let me ask you this:
How many of you own a wooden boat?
How many of you drove here today in a wooden car?
Anybody here wearing wooden shoes?
(By the way, the French name for those are sabots,
and if you want to protest your working conditions,
you throw into the mill gears, making things
literally grind to a halt. When you throw your sabots
like that, you have engaged in sabotage.)
You see where I am going with this?
Why is it we like to valorize useless old things when
we have so many powerful things in our present?
Powerful things that come from us.
That we make.
That we imagined?
Case in point: the crawfish boat.
Or, let me put that another way:
you wanna know what makes Louisiana special?
It’s this.
There is no other place on this planet — on this
planet! — where you can drive down a highway and find
yourself passing a boat, going down the same highway
The boat is not in a nearby canal
The boat is not on a trailer
The boat is on the damned road and
there’s a guy driving it.
And, if you’re patient, you can watch
him turn into a rice field and float.
That is crazy.
That is an example of the kind of wild imaginative thinking
Of problem solving
Of paradigm-shifting
Of any other jargony word about creativity that
you can possibly imagine.
It’s a damn boat that goes on land and water.
It’s like something out of a fairy tale?
(And, in fact, it is.)
If you ask these guys how did they come up with this crazy-ass
they’ll look at you like you have lost your mind.
Ted Habetz and Maurice Benoit co-invented the hydraulic boat,
though they were preceded by a period of wild experimentation.
Tiller foot.
Gerard Olinger moved the drive unit to the back and added front
“Going down the road…”
Kurt Venable made it a business.

Please note that I am not suggesting that everyone here should give
up their professional lives and become farmers and fabricators.
Not at all.
But you can take your inspiration from them, draw from their
wisdom of this place.
It’s what poets do. Why not you?
To return us to the present moment, sitting here in Vermilionville:
Think about it this way.
The Village is maintained at a historical moment of something
like 1870.
But when you hear music played here, the earliest it’s
going to be from is the 1920s,
(when commercial recording began)
The music you here is a magical combination of French words
and melodies set to African rhythms and harmonies.
Indeed, there’s reason to believe that the pentatonic
scale that dominates American music is African in origin.
And the food you eat here, and perhaps in your own home, that
you call Cajun and Creole, is a wonderful mix of a lot of
Here along the Teche, most of us enjoy especially the
garlic-orientation given to us by the bayou’s Italian
But music and food are but two facets of our lives.
Important ones.
Expressive ones.
But let’s not forget that the French peasants who were first
taught to clear marshes by closing them up with levees were
in fact taught by Dutchmen, brought down for that very
And let’s not forget that the explosion in commercial
ricing agriculture came with the Palatinate Germans at
the end of the nineteenth century,
who were themselves escaping an essentializing of
what it culture,
of what it meant to be German.
Let’s not turn anyone away.
Let’s not turn ourselves away.
What do I mean by that?
I mean spend more time with your parents and grandparents.
I mean let your dad tell that damned favorite story of his
one more time.
I mean let your too large Aunt Betty give you one more too
wet kiss.
I mean make up songs to sing with your kids and spend time
singing with them.
Or make up songs to sing with your partner or spouse.
How the heck do you think culture gets made?
Don’t come here looking for it.
And don’t come to my class hoping I’ll give you instructions on
how to be a proper Cajun.
I ain’t gonna do that.
I am going to tell you to start paying better attention to your
To draw inspiration from it.
To appreciate it for what it is.
To appreciate the people around you for who they are.
Thank you.

The Lost Codex of Archimedes

William Noel at TEDx in Dubai gave a [terrific overview] of the history of the lost Archimedes codex and how a small team of researchers has managed to recover it — even more interesting, they recovered the six other manuscripts which were bound with, as reused pages for a prayer book. Two of those other six manuscripts were unique contributions to our knowledge of the ancient world.


A Few Friends Sitting Around

There’s a nice article by Fox’s Filmed Entertainment co-chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos on his relationship with Steve Jobs. It’s worth a read for insight into Jobs and how one of the industry insiders viewed him, but there is also this nice description of how Steve Jobs thought about giving presentations:

A couple of years later, Steve invited me to join him at MacWorld to announce the launch of VOD on iTunes, which we had also worked on together. It was a serious badge of honor for a civilian, but it petrified me. In the green room, before Steve went onstage to present to the 6,000 people hanging on his every word, I told him, “I don’t know how you do it, walking back and forth out there for an hour with no notes or teleprompter in front of all those people.” He said, “It’s easy, you just imagine you have a few friends sitting around your living room and you’re telling them what’s new.”

Slide Templates

I am looking for a Keynote Theme or PowerPoint template on which I can build an entire semester of presentations to my Louisiana folklore class and that will good used as a basis for viewable lecturecasts or as printable PDFs. I think I want something that feels like old-time letterpress printing. That’s just my impulse for now.

Here are some possible candidates:

[Canto][1] by KeynotePro is 24.95 for the standard definition version.

Inline1 12  dragged

[Transinfinite][2] by Keynote Theme Park is okay. It’s 19.95 and would require some re-working.

Trans 01

Decent PowerPoint templates are harder to find: there’s a myriad out there, but finding something, well, not ugly is difficult. Here are some ideas that I like from [Powered Templates][3]:

Wavy Branches

B 1

B 4

Yellow Tree is available [here][4]. $12 for three slides. $24 for 17.



My friend Jason Jackson has invited me to join him and a few others in trying out a new presentation format at this year’s annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. The format is called [*PechaKucha*]( and it’s one of the many X slides in Y minute formats — apparently the first — designed to refresh the presentation genre which has gotten bogged down by PowerPoint slides loaded with bullets and presenters too reliant upon reading the text as they go. In PechaKucha, you get 20 slides, each of which shows on the screen for 20 seconds. That gets you 400 seconds, or 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

Twenty slides in six minutes. This is going to be fun.

Formatting and Outputs

I do much of my non-scholarly writing in a text editor, but I still need to share what I do with others. Preferably pretty. I like to keep my options open on how to move out of MultiMarkdown into a styled output:

  • XSL:FO stands for Extensible Stylesheet Language Formatting Objects. Update: The link to the W3Schools no longer works and the good people at Who Is Hosting This offer their own materials as a suitable substitute.
  • DITA is an XML architecture for designing, writing, managing, and publishing information.

There is, of course, also presentation versions, like Eric Meyer’s S5 format, which has since been extended. For a more general overview, see the Wikipedia article on S5 I’m curious about the latter, because as this sample code reveals:

<div class="slide">
 <h1>slide title</h1>
   <li>the first point</li>
   <li>the second point</li>
   <li>the third point</li>
 <div class="handout">
  ... additional material that appears
     on the handout

The S5 format is unfortunately oriented toward the standard slide layout.

YAPF: Yet Another Presentation Format

One of the things I continually harp on my graduate students about is how they make presentations. For the majority of them, their idea of a presentation comes from their days (and days and days — they are graduate students after all) spent in the classroom where they have established themselves as the kind of people who enjoy classroom lectures. And so one of their first impulses is to re-create the classroom lecture.

But that doesn’t mean they have necessarily experienced, and thus are in a position to recreate, great classroom lectures. (One doesn’t have to have encountered excellence in a genre to be an established fan of the genre — more on this perhaps another time.) The same goes for the other presentational form that grad students have likely experienced, the conference paper. While the lecture format typically assumes something like 45 minutes to make its point, the conference paper is constrained to 20 minutes, or sometimes 15 minutes. However, that does not necessarily encourage authors/presenters to get to the point. I have, no lie, witnessed individuals read from article-length or chapter-length papers, somehow believing that there ideas are so compelling that the audience is willing to withstand their speed reading and such qualifications as “I can’t go into todepth here due to lack of time.” (I don’t think I have ever seen a “stage rush” at the end of such a performance with gobs of new fans breathlessly pressing for the skipped-over idea.)

I’m not picking on just academics here, but on presenters in general. I have, while in the business world, sat through many a PowerPoint slide stack which consisted of nothing more than slide after slide of bullet points, many of which were nothing more than read off the slide by the presenter. This is the scene of revolution, or at least revolt, for more sites and speakers/authors who seek to revise or refine presentational forms. One of the first of such sites I came across was [Presentation Zen][pz], a site I have regularly recommended to grad students — a recommendation, I can tell from their presentations, that most of them have ignored. From there, I have suggested they explore not only the form but also the content of the [TED talks].

The technology sphere in general has generated a number of conventions. [Guy Kawasaki][gk] has his own [10/20/30 rule][123]. And there are presentations like [this one by Dick Hardt][dh] at OSCON on which even talented presenters like Lawrence Lessig have commented. (Lessig is a presentation dynamo in his own right, and his [free culture talk][fct], which speaks directly to the heart of folklore studies and the larger philological project, is well worth watching. Please also note that his book is available, in its entirety, as a free download at that link.)

And so it should come as no surprise that [O’Reilly][or], so often at the vanguard — almost too consciously so sometimes — has come up with Yet Another Presentation Format (YAPF). It’s worth checking out Scott Berkun’s meta-presentation on the format, if only for its suggestiveness:


The Home We Carry

The text below are my speaking notes for a talk I gave before the Catholic Daughters League. It looks a bit odd because I occasionally write my speaking notes to look a bit more like poetry, to help me remember how I want things to sound in addition to what I want to say. It is something I learned from Henry Glassie.

It is, I think I can safely say, obvious to all of you here that women make much in our world.

They make meals.
They make babies.
They make homes.

In doing all of those things,

in putting us on this earth,
in putting food in us,
in putting up with us,

they, most importantly of all, make us.

Despite the obviousness of all of this,
attention to the women and the homes they make has been a long time coming.

Those of us who study things like local cultures
have too long focused on men’s folk culture,
mostly because men’s culture tends to take place in public
and thus is readily available to outsiders
and its value seems obvious to insiders.

But men account for only half of who any group of people are.
That seems obvious, right?

And men are often put in charge of the least valuable parts of a culture:
cars, lawns, barbecues.

The most important part of any culture is its children:
they are what keep it alive.

Now, we are lucky to live in a culture where men and women can be involved in raising children,
but women have been,
if we are to be honest,
largely charged with the responsibility.

And it’s in our mother’s arms
that we first sway to the rhythms of life
that we will take with us out of the house
and with which we will make our own lives,
our own homes.

It is in our mothers’ and fathers’ voices that we learn our first words
and how to speak them.

Ché, not chere.
Go make groceries, not go to the grocery store.

We say home is where the heart is,
but the heart is our heart,
and we take it with us wherever we go.

By giving us our hearts (both literally and figuratively),
women give us ourselves.

My point in all this is simple: home isn’t inside a house.
People aren’t cooped up at home.
Home is the center of a family,
the center of our hearts.

From home, everything radiates outwards.

Louisiana has been lucky in having sensitive recorders of its folk culture, men and women who cued us early on to the wealth that is women’s folk culture. While those historical recordings — most of which are available at the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore for all to hear — sent contemporary folklorists to seek out the kinds of ballads and stories that really are the commonwealth of a culture, it also began a discussion about the larger role women play.

Kristi Guillory set off at the start of this decade to document, quite literally, old wives’ tales: she interviewed older women about bearing and rearing children. Her work here is almost revolutionary for the academy but obvious to those of us living our lives: can anyone doubt that our fundamental feeling for the world and how to live in it is established in those formative years when our mothers, and our fathers, pad our bottoms either to dry them or pad them to set us straight?

Her later work was to examine the images and ideas found in Cajun music, and in her thesis she collected and analyzed the lyrics of over 200 songs from our part of the world.

She is joined tonight by Yvette Landry and Chris Segura.

Yvette Landry is a Breaux Bridge native and, perhaps most importantly of all, a former Crawfish Queen. More seriously, Yvette plays bass guitar with the Lafayette Rhythm Devils and Bonsoir Catin. By night she is a fine musician, from a long line of musicians; by day, she is a teacher at the Episcopal School of Acadiana.

Chris Segura has been playing fiddle since the age of four and is a member of
Feufollet and the Lafayette Rhythm Devils. While Chris is currently a UL student, he also owns, along with his friend and colleague, Chris Stafford a successful recording studio where they recently produced the popular Allons Boire Un Coup project with Valcour Records.`