Comprehensive Examination Information Session

On Wednesday, February 8, the Graduate Student Forum held an information session for the benefit of our students taking their comprehensive exams in March. While this is definitely a stressful process, Dr. Giesberg and former graduate student Helen Gassmann (MA, 2016) agreed to help make this process as smooth as possible. Here are some of their tips for preparing for comps!

Helen’s Tips

  • Talk to board members, don’t stress out until you talk to them
  • Create flash cards for readings, both in your concentration and in the general, overarching works
    • Include author, title, year, thesis
  • Concentration
    • Questions are derived from main themes
    • These questions are created just for you, so they deal with things that you have studied and are passionate about
  • Study with others!
  • For each question, use 3-4 works as evidence
    • Don’t just name drop
    • Make sure to know key themes and thesis of work
  • Day of:
    • Time is essential, make sure to use it effectively!
    • Bring a snack to eat, campus eateries may not be open

Dr. Giesberg’s Tips

  • Four hour written exam
    • Two hours in the morning on your concentration
    • Two hours in the morning on general questions
      • Information from theory and methods will be quite helpful
    • Two hour break in between morning and afternoon sessions
  • Concentration Exam
    • As soon as your examiners are assigned to you, go talk to them!
    • Develop a defined concentration with your examiner(s)
    • Look at your transcript
      • Which courses are in your concentration?
    • Look at previously given comprehensive exams
      • This will give you an idea of what types of questions you can expect
    • Practice these questions
      • Time yourself to help work on time management
    • Work on bibliography
      • Give to all 3 examiners
      • Bibliography needs only to cover up through Fall 2016
      • Separate works by course
      • Include primary and secondary sources
      • A format guide can be found in the back of the Graduate Student Handbook
      • When you turn in your bibliography to examiners, include your portfolio reflection
    • Afternoon Exam
      • Important to use actual evidence from books to back up theory
      • Use book concentration coursework and theoretical course work
      • Try not to repeat books across questions and across sessions
    • Once bibliography gets narrowed down, make note cards
    • Exam is 100% computer based, but scrap paper is provided
      • Exam word processor does NOT have spellcheck
        • Ability to go back and edit, as well as copy and paste, are available
      • There is no “magic number” of sources used
        • Do not laundry list
        • Make sure response is meaningful, rather than just name-dropping
        • Know authors
          • Look acknowledgements and information about authors’ backgrounds
        • Exam is taking place in Mendel Hall on March 18th
        • Concentration knowledge
          • You should have a “textbook knowledge” of your concentration
          • An actual textbook may be helpful for your studying process
            • Exam will be more thematically focused
              • Exam does not test specific events, but if you reference specific events, you should not get them wrong



City Gardens: Trenton’s Musical History


1701 Calhoun St. Trenton, NJ-Formerly City Gardens Music Venue

The building that stands at 1701 Calhoun Street in Trenton, New Jersey may not look like much. Currently, it’s a pink, cinder block building that is boarded up, fenced off, and surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds. To the average person walking by, it is no different than any of the other buildings that have slipped into disrepair in some of the city’s poorer, more run-down sections.

However, this building is one of the main subjects of a new historical archive opening in the Trenton Free Public Library this month dedicated to the deep, rich history of New Jersey’s capital city. When most people discuss Trenton’s history, the topic of conversation quickly turns to the American Revolution, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and the ensuing battle against the British. The Battle of Trenton and its lasting effects on the young republic are just a chapter in Trenton’s history however. Throughout the 20th century, vibrant musical communities flourished in Trenton, ranging from jazz and blues music to alternative and punk rock by the 1980s and 1990s.

When one first looks at the building that stands at 1701 Calhoun Street in Trenton, NJ, he or she would not likely suspect that just 20 years ago, it was known as City Gardens and served as one of the most important venues in punk and alternative rock music in the nation. Hosting bands like Nirvana, the Ramones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers that would go on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, City Gardens holds an interesting place in Trenton’s history. In fact, aside from the fence that currently surrounds the parking lot and slight roof damage, the building looks almost the same as it did when it served as a venue. Due to its location about a mile and a half in from the Delaware River on the border with neighboring Ewing Township, and roughly forty miles from Philadelphia and sixty-five miles from New York City, the club served as a stopping point for traveling bands in an era of near endless touring for up and coming musicians.


City Gardens was open as a music venue from 1979-1994

There is very little information available concerning the early days of the club as a punk venue, but by late 1980, local DJ Randy Ellis, better known in the local music scene by his nickname Randy Now, began promoting shows in the venue. Randy Now had been an active DJ in the surrounding suburbs, but found it difficult to find places accepting of less mainstream music. Bands like the Ramones, The Talking Heads, and the Dead Kennedys were rejected in favor of more popular music in a number of clubs.

Nevertheless, a devoted network of fans developed and began frequenting the shows staged by Randy Now and up-and-coming bands of the day. This network of fans was an interesting one. The punk scene, with some exceptions, was predominantly white. For the most part, the people coming to shows were white kids, most of whom were coming from neighboring suburbs like Ewing, Lawrence, and Hamilton. After a few decades of white families moving out of the city into those surrounding suburbs, the City of Trenton itself became less and less diverse, leaving behind largely minority neighborhoods that were mostly working class or poor. Many of the kids that would come to shows did so against their parents’ wishes or without their parents knowing.

The shows themselves were quite popular to these crowds of suburban kids traveling into the city, and in retrospect, the artists performing proved to be quite important with respect to musical influence. However, the importance of City Gardens as a venue stems from what it says about Trenton’s social and cultural history. Issues of race came to the forefront as predominantly white crowds at punk shows came into contact with, and often clashed with, the predominantly African-American populations of the neighborhood that surrounded City Gardens. The new archives in Trenton hold transcripts of interviews with musicians and fans who speak to the racial dynamics of the punk community in the Trenton area and the disconnect between Trenton’s population and those who came in from the surrounding suburbs for concerts.

Furthermore, learning and telling the story of the history of music in Trenton also helps the historian understand the current state of society and culture in Trenton. Unbeknownst to many, a vibrant music community continues to exist, boasting musicians from a wide array of genres and events that continue to attract people from many towns of the surrounding areas. In opening a new archive and giving access to new primary sources, the Trenton Free Public Library is allowing for Trenton’s past to be re-imagined in new ways and for the story of the state’s capital city to be added to.


Trenton Free Public Library

Wulfing, Amy Yates and Steven DiLodovico. No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens. Trenton, NJ: DiWulf Publishing, 2014.

Mike Fischer, Second Year Graduate Student, US History Concentration

2016 Ph.D. Scare-A-Thon


Are you thinking about applying to a Ph.D. program? Do you have questions about the application process? Would you like to know more about furthering your historical education? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you should join us on Wednesday, October 19 at 4:30 p.m. in Rofinot’s Lounge for our annual Ph.D. Scare-A-Thon!

Dr. Martinko will join us in a discussion about the Ph.D. application process. We will talk about choosing a program, the writing sample, the personal statement, and a number of other things that will help in your Ph.D. process.

We will also have snacks and opportunities to win prizes! We hope to see you there!

Why Can’t We Get Enough of “The Juice?”


O.J. Simpson attempting to put on a pair of leather gloves which became a center piece of his 1995 trial. Photo from

ESPN, America’s leader in sports entertainment, called it “the defining cultural tale of modern America.” In 1995, former football star Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson stood trial for, and was acquitted of, the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.  It has been more than two decades since Simpson’s trial, and America’s captivation with it has hardly evaporated. One would be hard-pressed to go a week without catching at least a reference to “The Juice,” whether it’s with respect to his playing career, the murder trial, or his life since his 1995 acquittal. But why? Why is America so obsessed with O.J. Simpson? Is it because of his perhaps unequaled skill on the gridiron? Is it because of the grisly crimes he was accused of two decades ago? Is it because of the connections to many of our own present-day issues of race, violence, justice and celebrity? The answer is simply “yes, all of the above.”

Just last week, ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series began airing its five-part documentary on Simpson. “O.J.: Made in America” follows Simpson from humble beginnings, on to his Heisman Trophy-winning college career at USC, into a Hall of Fame career in the National Football League, through the infamous murder trial, and beyond. However, this is just the latest in a long line of media productions centered around Simpson. Earlier this year, the television channel “FX” began a miniseries entitled The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, featuring an ensemble cast of Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as lawyer Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and David Schwimmer as Simpson’s friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian. Each production, along with the others that are far too numerous to name individually, tell the tale of race, violence, and the American media.

One observer of Simpson’s career stated that “…for us, O.J. was colorless.” In the period of Simpson’s rise to football stardom, racial politics were quite contentious, even in the arena of sports. Muhammad Ali had become a symbol through his refusal to conscripted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War. Lew Alcindor, later known as basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, also made a political and racial statement by boycotting the 1968 Olympic basketball tournament, citing his disapproval of Vietnam and the state of race relations in the United States. Meanwhile, O.J. Simpson appeared nation-wide commercials for Chevy, Hertz car rentals, and much more. In a time when many African-American athletes were polarizing to the American public, Simpson appeared to the white community as a uniting factor, someone to bridge the gap between white America and black America both on and off the field.

If O.J. Simpson is remembered far less than Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with respect to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, why did race come to dominant a later chapter of Simpson’s life?  One needs to look no further than the race relations surrounding the LAPD in the years leading up to Simpson’s trial. In 1990, the police department was 61 percent white, only 14 percent black, and had a history of rampant corruption and racism. After the acquittals of members of the LAPD in the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent 1992 Los Angeles riots, race relations were unstable and contentious. With Simpson’s trial following so quickly, it was impossible for the media and the public to ignore the racial undertones. This was compounded even further with Detective Mark Fuhrman’s racist statements, perjury, and possible evidence tampering. Throughout the course of the trial, Simpson went from the “colorless” former football star to the centerpiece of the racially charged “trial of the century.”

O.J. Simpson was acquitted on October 3, 1995, eliciting very different responses from the white and black communities. Over twenty years later, we as a nation are still captivated, because the same arguments and discussions are taking place today. Whether one believes Simpson is guilty or innocent does not change the fact. The racially charged discussion of our athletes continues. Furthermore, it seems like every other day there is another story about a professional athlete involved in a domestic violence accusation (of which Simpson had multiple over the course of his marriage to Nicole Brown Simpson). Finally, the debates over police brutality, corruption, and racism in some of our nation’s police forces has dominated the news since the deaths of young black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or Freddie Gray in Baltimore Maryland, both resulting from altercations with white police officers. Simpson is currently in prison, serving a 33-year sentence related to a 2008 armed robbery. He is up for parole next year and will undoubtedly dominate the headlines once again. In a way, O.J. Simpson embodies all of these issues that still pervade American society. That is why America is still obsessed with O.J. Simpson. His life is representative of the questions we as a nation wrestle with to this very day.

A National Championship 31 Years in the Making

One hundred twenty-five years after James Naismith nailed a pair of peach baskets to the walls of a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts, the game of basketball has grown into one of the most popular sports in the world. Kids from all over the globe can be seen in their driveways, their local parks, or their city streets emulating the play of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant, dreaming of playing that game in front of huge, cheering crowds.

Naismith Rules

James Naismith’s handwritten description of the first basketball game (1891).


The city of Philadelphia and its surrounding areas make up just one of the many places that is consumed by basketball at this time of the year. While the city’s professional team, the 76ers, is undergoing a rough stretch of rebuilding, sitting at the bottom of the National Basketball Association’s standings, there are still things to be excited about. Philadelphia’s basketball fans look to a rich professional history, boasting some of the game’s best players including Wilt Chamberlain, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and the new Hall of Famer, Allen Iverson. But for most of us, when we have been thinking about basketball recently, we have been thinking about our Villanova Wildcats.

This year’s Wildcats have made history in a number of ways. For the first time in school history, they sat atop the NCAA’s Men’s College Basketball rankings. They broke records for field goal percentage in a Final Four game and for margin of victory in a Final Four game while defeating Oklahoma University in Houston on Saturday night. For the first time since 1985, the Wildcats are going to play for the national championship.

The 2016 Wildcats, while making a bit of history by themselves, share a number of similarities with their predecessors, the 1985 team. Three decades ago, an overachieving Wildcat team advanced through the NCAA tournament as an 8 seed, eventually defeating the top-ranked Georgetown Hoyas who were led by future NBA superstar, Patrick Ewing. Though a number of Wildcats would get to continue their basketball careers at the professional level, their victory was a complete team effort that led to what some consider to be the greatest upset in American sports history. This year’s team prides itself on team chemistry, and played what can only be considered a full team effort to defeat Oklahoma and their own star, Naismith Trophy winner, Buddy Hield in the Final Four. Though they spent some time as the top-ranked team in the nation, very few commentators predicted Villanova to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

After celebrations following Villanova’s Final Four victory shut down parts of Lancaster Avenue, it is pretty clear that the members of the Villanova community are beyond excited for their team. Do graduate history students share that sense of excitement? For many of us, the community that surrounds Villanova basketball is a new one. In the fall, most of us wouldn’t know Jay Wright if we fell over him. We probably couldn’t pronounce Ryan Arcidiacono’s last name. By the start of the tournament however, Wildcat pride made its way to us grad students. We will be watching eagerly tonight, hoping to share in some of the excitement that our 1985 counterparts experienced when their team beat Georgetown.

In recent years, it has been tough to be a basketball fan in Philadelphia, but this year it’s different. The Wildcats have made history, and there is still basketball to be played.



Review: Key and Peele’s Civil War Reenactment


In light of Mississippi’s declaration of April as Confederate Heritage Month, it is helpful to take a step back and look at how the Civil War is actually seen by American people. Was it a conflict over the peculiar institution of slavery, or was it centered on states’ rights and individual freedoms? In their “Civil War Reenactment” skit, Key and Peele shed some light on the all too common occurrence of the Southern Confederate apologist.

The focal point of this brief Key and Peele skit is quite familiar to historians who are acquainted with public perception of the American Civil War. Posing as a Confederate officer, a Civil War reenactor rallies the troops under his command to the protection of the Southern way of life, which he describes as both “pure” and “beautiful.” Much to his dismay, his speech is interrupted by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have assumed the roles of stereotypical obedient slaves in this reenactment.

This portrayal of American attitudes toward the role of slavery and the Civil War contrasts deeply with other programs that depict the institution’s brutality. Graphic depictions of slavery in films such as Twelve Years a Slave portray its brutality accurately without whitewashing its history. However, large segments of the population look at this as revisionism, championing the views put forward by the Confederate reenactor in Key and Peele’s skit.

When you separate the Civil War from slavery, can you create an accurate picture of American history? This question drives the disagreement between recent dramatic treatments of slavery and a “safer” view of the Civil War which ignores the institution altogether. Comedy in the vein of this Key and Peele skit may be able to succeed in ways that drama thus far has not. Its effect comes not from a clear, brutal depiction of slavery, but from illuminating the absurdity of its absence. In the romantic vision held by the skit’s reenactment leader, and those like him in the United States in the twenty-first century, the Confederacy fought for states’ rights and for personal liberty, so long as that person just happened to be a white male. But when Key and Peele cleverly and comically expose his racist thinking, they tie the Confederate cause right back to the issue of race and slavery.

In emphasizing the absurdity of the beliefs held by the Confederate reenactors, Key and Peele attempt to show just how ridiculous it is to view the Civil War without slavery. This can be coupled with the “Slave Auction” skit, in which the titular traumatic experience is reexamined through a similar raw, comedic lens. In that case, the only thing worse for Key and Peele than being sold as slaves was not being sold, not being wanted. In both instances, serious racial and historical questions are analyzed in the name of comedy. For many, race and slavery are off-limits topics, far too uncomfortable to be addressed. Is comedy the key to bridging the gap between “higher” culture and a lack of historical understanding. If it starts the conversation and opens a dialogue about slavery and the Civil War, then why can’t it be?

Key and Peele’s “Civil War Reenactment”:

Patriots Week: Celebrate Trenton

For some, December 25th, is a day of celebration. The weeks of studying, writing, shopping are over and Christmas is finally here! Additionally, for some (including myself) it also serves as a great opportunity for many in Trenton, the capital city of nearby New Jersey, to witness a reenactment of the great story of George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and the ensuing march toward Trenton.

In the immediate aftermath of the Christmas Day reenactment of General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River at Washington Crossing National Park, “Patriots Week” runs from December 26th through the 31st, and features of host of different events that explore the rich Revolutionary-era history of the City. On multiple occasions scattered throughout the week, Muralist Illia Barger will be creating a multi-panel mural depicting the 1776 Battle of Trenton at a “Pop-Up Art Space” on East State Street. This is just one of many opportunities for residents and visitors to soak in all that the City of Trenton has to offer. Tours of the Old Barracks Museum, the house of Trenton Founder William Trent, the City Museum, and the State House are all open to the public. You might even catch a glimpse of 2016 presidential hopeful Governor Chris Christie!

Of particular interest to budding historians are two central events to the city’s Patriots Week. The first is the reenactment of the First Battle of Trenton. Spectators can walk up and down the sidewalks of Downton Trenton and witness soldiers of the Continental Army and Hessian forces engage in skirmishes on the same streets as they did 239 years prior. The continental troops march out from the Old Barracks Museum just before noon on December 27th and meet their mercenary counterparts. Later in the day, members of the Trenton Friends society will lead a walking tour of the Revolutionary-era sights, starting at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.

The other event that may be of interest to historians who have an unquenchable thirst for research materials is an open viewing of the actual Ach that George Washington rode under during his presidential inauguration, as well as a number of other items and primary sources that are house at the Trenton Free Public Library. The library’s archives are also home to a complete collection of the local newspaper The Trentonian’s records, as well as a host of other primary sources, which are available for research use. The open house and reception hosted on Wednesday, December 30th, allows visitors to get familiar with the library and learn how to access these research sources.

Between historical reenactments, live art exhibitions, discussion panels, and tours, the history of New Jersey’s capital city comes alive during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The week ends with an evening vigil for peace and a performance of the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra. In a year when the December temperatures are hitting record highs, Trenton’s Patriots Week offers a great deal for those fascinated with the history of the city, the state, and the nation.

Food, Family, and Football: The Origins of the Gridiron as a Thanksgiving Tradition (Originally Posted November 11)

With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, it is hard not to think about the many holiday traditions that we will soon be observing with our families, friends, and loved ones. Parades, feasts, and family gatherings are all sure to be featured on our calendars in the coming weeks. One interesting Thanksgiving tradition that has so deeply permeated our society is the spectacle of American football. On a day dedicated to observing the things that we are grateful for in life, many of us will sit down before or after a meal (or during), and watch twenty-two men lace up cleats and risk injury in order to move an inflated piece of leather from one end of a field to another. Some may even go out and play a game of their own, with their friends and family, or with their teammates at the high school or collegiate level.


Sure there are a number of questions related to football and to sport in general. Why do individuals dedicate so much time to watching a game they are not personally involved in? Why is the danger of football so appealing to so many people? These questions don’t have anything to do with Thanksgiving.

Why do we watch and play football on Thanksgiving Day specifically? After all, more than three centuries separate the first professional Thanksgiving football game and the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and though misplaced some of our Thanksgiving traditions may be, it seems a bit of a stretch to connect football to the holiday at all.

It appears as if the origin of this tradition lays in a marketing scheme. In 1934, George A. Richards moved his football team, the Spartans of Portsmith, Ohio to Detroit and renamed them the Lions. The sports fans in Detroit seemed to care little about their new football team, focusing their admiration rather on the established Detroit Tigers, who played baseball. Richards, who needed to stir up interest in the city’s new team, convinced NBC to carry a Thanksgiving Day game between his Lions and the defending World Champion Chicago Bears. Though the Lions lost the game by a score of 19-16, the team was exposed to a nationwide audience and played before a crowd of nearly 26,000 people. Prior to that game, the largest crowd to watch the team play was just 15,000. Since then, the Detroit Lions have won 35 games, lost 38, and tied 2 on Thanksgiving, pausing for World War II, during which no NFL games were held on the holiday.

But what about the other games on Thanksgiving? The Dallas Cowboys, the so-called “America’s Team,” also plays yearly on the fourth Thursday of November. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), this tradition is can also be attributed to marketing. In the 1960s, team owner Tex Schramm needed a way to boost interest in his struggling team. With NFL viewership quickly increasing, he followed the tactics of George Richards and added a Thanksgiving home game to his team’s schedule. Schramm’s ideas also had an air of strategy to them. A home game on Thursday would mean an incredibly short week of practice and travel for visiting teams, hopefully giving his team even more of a home field advantage.

In yet another display of the NFL’s search for economic success, a third professional game was added in 2006. This third game is not limited to a specific team however. Rather, any game deemed important or exciting enough to warrant a holiday timeslot is scheduled for the Thanksgiving Night game.

Since the first Thanksgiving NFL game in 1934, all but two teams, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, have played at least one game on the fourth Thursday in November. Countless other fans and enthusiasts have followed in their favorite teams’ footsteps and have played games of their own. For better or worse, they can attribute their participation in this interesting American tradition to the pursuit of expanding markets and revenue for the National Football League.