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Robert Blobaum: Big XII Fellowship Activities & Eberly Family Professor of History

I arrived at the University of Kansas in the late afternoon of Monday, March 28, and was met by my principal host, Professor Nathanial D. Wood of the Department of History. My home away from home for the week was to be the Max Kade Center, a former mansion sitting atop a hill overlooking the football stadium which today houses KU’s German Studies program. Originally the property belonged to an early dean of KU’s medical school and was later donated to the university and renovated with the financial support of the Max Kade Foundation, which has also provided funding for German cultural centers at other U.S. universities. The first floor of the Max Kade Center in Lawrence is comprised of a library of German-language materials going back to the 18th century, office space, and a larger room for hosting events (piano included). My fully equipped apartment on the second floor was separated by a hallway leading to a small seminar room.

In that seminar room on the morning of the second day of my visit, I met with Professor Wood and his doctoral student, Drew Burks, to discuss progress on our “Big XII” collaborative research project “Slowing Down in the Age of Speed,” which will examine the impact of the First World War on the amenities of modern urban life and culture in three East-Central European cities—Warsaw and Cracow in Poland and Lviv in western Ukraine. We have organized a panel for the national convention of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies in Washington and are planning a cluster of articles for one of the field’s leading journals, East European Politics and Societies. Following lunch I addressed Professor Wood’s undergraduate class on the First World War, a course which he co-teaches with a colleague whose focus is on U.S. involvement in the war. My comments addressed the situation in Warsaw in 1917 and how events of that year outside of the city— namely, two Russian revolutions and U.S. entrance into the war—affected the lives of its ordinary inhabitants. Later that evening my main lecture at KU, based on my forthcoming book “A Minor Apocalypse: Everyday Life in Warsaw during the First World War,” was held at the Alderson Auditorium of KU’s student union. The lecture, meant to serve as the “grand finale” in a series devoted to the Eastern front in WWI, was open to the public and was attended by faculty, students, and members of the greater Lawrence/Kansas City community. Also in the audience were two special octogenarian guests from afar, my mother who came down from Omaha, Nebraska and my uncle who drove up from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Wednesday the 30th was devoted to Kansas State University, where I was hosted by the faculty of the Institute for Military History and Twentieth-Century Studies, led by Interim Director Kristen Mulready-Stone. I basically did a repeat performance of the previous evening’s lecture, although this time my audience consisted mainly of undergraduate students, whose attendance was factored into their course requirements. Kansas State is located in Manhattan, or the “Little Apple,” a 90-minute drive from Lawrence through the beautiful prairie-swept Flint Hills, a small portion of which had recently been turned to the color of charcoal by lightning-caused grass fires. Kansas State University has a strong tradition in military studies, in part due to its proximity to and relationship with Fort Leavenworth, and offers a Ph.D. in this multidisciplinary area. In fact, Kristen’s husband David Stone, an expert on the Russian army in World War I, has taken leave from Kansas State and is currently teaching at the Naval War College, and will be joined by Kristen there next year.

On Thursday, following visits to the KU basketball shrine at Allen Fieldhouse and the Spencer Research Library (to view an exhibit devoted to the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916) I met with graduate students from the KU History Department to talk about my own career choices and to address the kinds of career options that are available to them at a time of declining support for Humanities-related disciplines. Later that evening, I met with faculty from the Jewish Studies program led by Professor John Younger, an archeologist whose work in Israel has been widely recognized. The group also consisted of two Holocaust historians and two younger scholars working in the area of German-Jewish literature and philosophy. Many of the conversations that I had with faculty in both Lawrence and Manhattan focused on concerns actually and potentially relevant to WVU, namely steep cuts in state funding and concealed weapons legislation that will enable practically anyone to bring firearms onto university property and into classrooms, starting next year. Faculty members at institutions of higher education in Kansas are fearful of the consequences of non-exempt status for concealed weapons, to put it mildly, and faculty recruitment and retention has suffered as a result.

The last day of my visit was spent at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. The Museum, however, was a local rather than a federal initiative at the time of its founding in the early 1920s and remains so. Originally designed as a memorial, the construction of a museum below the memorial plaza with its view of the Kansas City skyline occurred in the 1990s. To enter, one walks over a glass-encased “field” of poppies, the best-known symbol of the war. The Museum struck me as state-of-the-art and it is a major regional tourist destination. The Museum is divided into two halves—one devoted entirely to the European and global aspects of the war, the other to the U.S. experience. Our purpose, however, was to meet with the Museum’s director and chief archivist to discuss materials for an Eastern front exhibit as part of its November 2016 symposium (it holds a major symposium every November in connection with Armistice/Veterans Day), as well as my possible participation in that symposium as a lecturer.

All told, I found the Big XII fellowship to provide an excellent opportunity to participate in a range of activities and I have encouraged my colleagues from the fellow Big XII schools to apply in order to come to WVU and to continue our collaboration. It was indeed an enriching and rewarding experience for all parties concerned which will certainly produce tangible outcomes in the future.