Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year in Review: My Favorite Music in 2014

It's time for my annual year-end list of favorite albums. I'm no music critic, so my criteria for which albums make the cut follows the Lemon test: I know what I like when I hear it. Normally I'd write a little blurb for each of these twelve albums, explaining why it's a favorite. Unfortunately, I'll have to set aside that little extra flourish this year due to time constraints.

With that said, onto the list!

Favorite Song: Patriarch
Favorite Song: The Dark (Trinity)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Historians and Social Media: A Grad Student's Perspective

Last weekend I traveled to sunny Malibu for the 2014 Conference on Faith and History. As you can see from the image on the left, the conference theme was centered around the notion of the historian's "public." As a graduate student, my perspective on who my public is and how I want to reach them is necessarily different from established historians. Thanks to my participation in a roundtable focusing on "Christian Historians and Social Media," I was able to discuss some of those differences.

The mastermind behind the roundtable, Jonathan Den Hartog, orchestrated a plan to have each of the participants post his comments from our roundtable online this week. You can read Den Hartog's introductory remarks at his blog, John Fea's comments at his blog, and Chris Gehrz's reflections at (yes) his blog. Or one of his four blogs, I should say.

To round out our series of posts, here are my comments. They have not been edited for clarity or length. You get 'em in all their original muddled glory.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Favorite Writing Music in 2014

We're now into the second half of 2014, and as usual I've been keeping track of my favorite new albums. I'm never able to keep up with everything that comes out, but from what I have listened to thus far my top 12 albums list would probably include (in some order): The War on Drugs, Conor Oberst, Lykke Li, Old 97s, Cloud Nothings, Sun Kil Moon, Run River North, How to Dress Well, The Roots, Common, Spoon, and Atmosphere. 

Usually I approach a new album by listening to it all the way through a few times, then selecting the songs that I like from the album and adding them to a "Best Songs of [Year X]" playlist on Spotify. Those songs then get played extensively whenever I take up a writing project. Below, I've compiled my ten favorite writing songs from albums released in 2014. This isn't necessarily a "ten best songs" list. Rather, it's a list of the songs that have provided the best writing soundtrack. As you can see from the list, I tend to gravitate towards songs that are wistful, pensive, or earnest in tone. Suggestions/snide comments welcome.

(Since some albums had multiple songs that would have made the list, I decided to limit each album to only one song. Click on song title to check out the songs for yourself.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Finally, a Langball Explainer

What is langball? (also known as "Lang ball" and "hang base ball")
Langball is a now-defunct game invented by C.G. Lang, a YMCA director in St. Joseph, Missouri, sometime around 1892. It's something like baseball or kickball, except that the batter in langball dangles from a horizontal bar or flying rings, striking the pitched ball with the bottom of their feet. Kind of like this:

Pic from Los Angeles Herald, April 19, 1896.

What happens after the ball is kicked?
The batter then runs to first base, much like in baseball, with the goal of eventually making it back to home base and scoring a run. Depending on the rules being used, there could be as few as two bases or as many as four.

Any fly ball caught by the defense is an out. But the rules for getting a runner out vary: if a light rubber ball is used, then the defense must hit the runner with the ball to get them out. Sometimes, however, a medicine ball is used. This brings an element of danger, for (as one early promoter of the game explained), "this indiscriminate throwing will endanger windows and apparatus, if not heads." Thus, the medicine ball version usually outlawed throwing at runners to get them out. Instead, you threw to the base, as in baseball.

Pic from Physical Education 1.2 (April 1892): 32.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

For Christians, Must Art Always Serve A Purpose?

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, Jordan Monson wrote a short piece titled "Do Christians Have Poor Cultural Taste?"

Monson began the piece by describing a "beautiful and melancholy" film that he viewed with a couple Christian friends. Monson loved the film: "In a mere three hours it led me through the full spectrum of human emotion," he wrote. "I empathized—even lamented—for its fictional characters. But my sorrow was of the redemptive kind, and it convicted me to go forward and share the hope of Christ with those who search in vain."

But his friends were not so enthused. One didn't like its lack of transforming robots; another thought that it did not teach viewers the proper moral behaviors.

From there, Monson began to wonder why it was that his friends and many other (evangelical) Christians were unable to appreciate the movie like he was. He assigned three factors to this tendency: having poor taste, "misunderstanding the role secular art can play in our lives," and something about fast-food culture vs. art.

Monson brought in the big gun for his analysis: C.S. Lewis. Lewis, according to Monson, argued that to have good taste one must receive art ("temporarily suspend judgment")  instead of use art (where art is simply a means to advance one's agenda). Monson agreed, arguing that evangelicals must learn to receive art (in a discerning way, of course), even from "secular" sources. And he suggested that approaching art in this manner "should inspire us to grow into better Christians, parents, evangelists, laborers, and listeners."

Like Monson, I too have wondered why it is that evangelical Christians have a tendency to enjoy terrible movies, music, and books. But it's not just the enjoying part -- the movies, music, and books that are most popular among the broad American population I often find terrible, too. What makes many evangelicals different is the fact that they often really, really want others to enjoy the cultural good as well (this is why they do things like rent out theaters for Son of God). Many believe that by getting others to partake of the cultural good, others will be sanctified or made better in some way. And on the other side of the coin, many evangelicals believe that some movies/music/books (often deemed "secular") will make people spiritually worse in some way. Why is this?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

College Majors and College Degrees for the 2014 NBA Draft Prospects

To complete my various posts related to the NBA and college degrees this week (see herehere, and here), it's time to take a look at the 2014 crop of NBA prospects

It should come as no surprise that most of the top talents in the draft don't have a college degree. The reason is simple: it makes little sense to stay in school for four years while the NCAA, your conference, and your school all make money from your basketball ability. If you are talented enough to be a first round pick in the NBA and get a guaranteed three-year contract worth millions, you should probably get out of the NCAA ASAP. If a college degree is important, there is always time to go back after (and even during) your NBA career.

Fitting in with recent precedent, this year only four of Draft Express's top 35 prospects can claim to have a college degree. But if the likely first-round picks are set aside, the number of college degrees ticks up quite a bit. Over half (thirty-eight in all) of Draft Express's prospects ranked from 36-100 have college degrees. And many of those prospects who do not have a degree are international players who did not attend an American college. In short, college players who are not locks to be a first-round pick often stick around for four years, get their degree, and then hope for a shot with an NBA when it's all done.

Of course, the transition from college to the NBA was not always set up this way. Originally, the NBA's rule was that rookies could not play in the NBA until their college class graduated. For example, when Wilt Chamberlain decided in 1958 to forego his senior year at Kansas, he had to wait a year -- even though he was drafted by Philadelphia through the NBA's territorial rule -- before he could enter the league.

Since players had to wait four years after high school graduation anyway, most stayed in college and got their degree before they entered the league. Those who did not generally had only a couple courses left to complete for the degree. This was the situation for Chamberlain's rival big man, Bill Russell. Russell planned to finish his classes at San Francisco during the summer after his first NBA season. However, when San Francisco made it clear that Russell would have to pay for the courses himself, he left the school, never to return (and never to receive his degree).

So what caused the NBA to change its policy?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Most Interesting College Degrees in the NBA

Over the past two days I've used a not-biased-at-all research process to determine which college degree has produced the best NBA players. (Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2). But since I only included the college degrees that had at least six NBA players, there were some interesting degrees left out of my analysis. Below, I've included a few of them.

1) Emeka Okafor (Finance), Jeff Hornacek (Accounting), and David Robinson (Mathematics)

The number crunchers. Before you get to the jokes about how boring accountants are, here's a video of Jeff Hornacek subverting accounting stereotypes.

2) Kyle Korver (Visual Studies), Kyle Singler (Visual Arts), Patrick Ewing (Fine Arts, poster/print design)

In contrast to our first group, these three are on the opposite side of the right brain/left brain false dichotomy. Kyle Singler's art projects used to get attention back when he was winning national titles with Duke. But no one has put their studies to better use than Patrick Ewing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Fifteen Best NBA Teams Of All Time...If Those Teams Were Organized By Players' College Degrees (PART TWO)

Continuing on from part one, here are the seven best college degrees for producing star NBA players.  

G - Dave Bing
G - Lenny Wilkins
F - Adrian Dantley
F - Jamaal Wilkes (now Jamaal Abdul-Lateef Wilkes)
C - Bill Laimbeer
6th Man - Kiki Vandewedghe
Missed the cut: Joe Barry Carroll, Festuz Ezeli, Jeremy Lin

From here on out, it’s incredibly difficult to find glaring weaknesses. Each team is solid 1 through 6, has a good inside/outside balance, and has no out-of-position players.

I really like the balance that this roster would provide. They’ve got four Hall-of-Famers (Bing, Wilkins, Dantley, Wilkes), and two guys who are on the near-miss HOF list. The problem with this team, compared to some of the teams in the top six, is that even though all of these players were great, none of them were truly elite. They’re like the 2001–2008 Pistons. And even though Wilkes (2 All-Defensive teams) and Laimbeer were both recognized for their play on the defensive end, neither player was especially adept at blocking shots.

Also, there is some degree drama with this team. Dave Bing, who eventually became mayor of Detroit (maybe not something you want on your resume), lied about having an MBA and also claimed that he received his economics degree thirty years before he actually completed it. But I won’t hold that against him: whenever it happened, he’s still got an economics degree.

G - Norm Nixon
G - Jason Terry
F - Alex English
F - Buck Williams
C - Shaquille O'Neal
6th Man - Xavier McDaniel
Missed the cut: Ervin Johnson, Steve Kerr, Keith Jennings

As with the Psychology team, my bias in favor of elite big men is coming out with this ranking. Besides O’Neal (who will be in the HOF), only English currently has a place in the Hall. So how can I put General Studies ahead of teams with multiple Hall-of-Famers?

First, all six players had long, consistently good careers, and all but Terry made at least one all-star game.

Second, the pieces fit incredibly well. You’ve got guards in Nixon and Terry who are dangerous offensively but don’t constantly need the ball, which frees up O’Neal to dominate. English would be a great wing scorer to play the Hardaway/Bryant/Wade role for Shaq, and Buck Williams was a four-time All-Defensive team player who could focus on defense and rebounding. McDaniel would provide great scoring punch off the bench.

Third, Shaq. Don’t forget how dominating he was.

One potential problem: Norm Nixon famously got into a tiff with Magic back in the early 1980s. Given Shaq’s history of intra-team rivalries, that might not bode well for team chemistry. On the other hand, Shaq and Kobe did win three rings together.

G - Steve Nash
G - Lionel Hollins
F - Dale Ellis
F - Nate Thurmond
C - Alonzo Mourning
6th Man - Mitch Richmond
Missed the cut: Larry Johnson, Rolando Blackman, David Lee, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Andre Miller, Jameer Nelson, Brent Barry, Christian Laettner, Dell Curry, Keith Van Horn, Johnny Newman

A deep pool of players to choose from certainly helps, and sociology was a popular degree choice, especially among more recent players (it was the third most popular degree overall).

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, but I love how this team fits together. Any defensive weaknesses brought by Nash and Ellis would be completely obliterated by the terrifying tandem of Thurmond and Mourning. Those two aren’t plodding big men who wait around the rim and occasionally happen to blog shots because they’re big (a la Shaq). They’re athletic and rangy. They’ll hunt you down.

On the offensive side you’d have Nash running the break with bigs who can actually run, and in the half court set driving and kicking to dead-eye shooters like Richmond and Ellis. Hollins, meanwhile, was no slouch. He was a perfect role player, handling the ball when needed and locking down the other team’s best guard (twice he was named to an All-Defensive team). In short, he’d be the perfect compliment for guards and wings like Nash, Ellis, and Richmond.

As for other accolades: all six players were All-Stars, and if you count the not-yet-inducted Nash, four of the six are Hall of Famers.


G - Gus Williams
G - Gary Payton
F - Magic Johnson
F - Maurice Lucas
C - Elvin Hayes
6th Man - David West
Missed the cut: Derek Fisher, Vin Baker, Juwan Howard, Danny Ainge, Mark Jackson, Danny Manning, Michael Adams, B.J. Armstrong, A.C. Green, Ralph Sampson, Theo Ratlif, Al Horford, Charles Smith, Bruce Bowen, Byron Scott, Mark Alarie, Jim McKilvane, Jayson Williams, Landry Fields, Thurl Bailey, J.R. Reid, Muggsy Bogues, Tyrone Hill, Brian Grant, Damon Stoudamire

More players have a communications degree than any other degree, so it’s a little bit difficult to wade through roughly equivalent players and nail down a six-person team. I feel absolutely confident about the starting five. But West as the Sixth Man? I’m just throwing darts. You could easily make a case for Horford or Hawkins as the better pick.

Some might argue that Mark Jackson deserves the PG spot. But I’d rather have a more multidimensional player to go alongside Payton. Williams may not be a household name, but he was one of the NBA’s best guards in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Plus, his inclusion brings back happy memories for Seattle’s NBA fans, and Lord knows they need it.

The great thing about this team is that it combines Magic Johnson’s brilliance-with-a-smile with the one-two swagger/intimidation punch of Payton and Lucas. Johnson is in the GOAT class of NBA standouts, which immediately makes this team difficult to deal with. Not far below him is Gary Payton, who won a defensive POY and was named to nine All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. There’s also Elvin Hayes, an all-star in three different decades. On top of that, six players went to at least one All-Star game. There’s just not much of a weak link, other than three-point shooting.

This team would have the guards to handle Nash & Co from Sociology, and the bigs to battle Zo. But I can’t put them ahead of the Bird-led Physical Education squad, and not just because of my pro-Celtics bias.

G - Jo Jo White
G - Jerry West
F - Paul Pressey
F - Larry Bird
C - Wes Unseld
6th Man - Ron Harper
Missed the cut: Vinnie Johnson, Don Nelson, David Wesley, Mike Woodson, Alvin Attles**

First, can we stop the charades and put Jo Jo White in the Hall of Fame already? Back in 2007, ESPN discussed five players who have been snubbed by the Hall. Four of those five have subsequently gotten in, but not White. The guy was a seven-time All-Star, made two All-NBA second teams, and won a finals MVP. If we're letting Joe Dumars and Reggie Miller in, it's time to let White in as well.

Another underrated player on this team: Paul Pressey, who some claim was the "original point forward." Rick Barry and Marques Johnson might have something to say about that claim, but at the very least Pressey was unique. A 6'5 forward who could pass like a point guard, he was also an efficient scorer (shooting 48.5% for his career), and an excellent defensive player (claiming three spots on NBA All-Defensive teams).

Joining White and Pressey would be lunchpail-carrying Hall-of-Fame pivot Wes Unseld and two of the top fifteen players in NBA history. There's a reason I don't have to write much about Bird and West. You already know.

Harper is a good-but-not-great sixth man, but people who remember him only from his days with the Bulls underestimate what a solid career he had. The main weakness with the team isn't Harper, but the lack of height and/or rim protectors. Unseld was great, but he was only 6'7 and never averaged over one blocked shot per game.

As a final note, even though he didn't make the top six it's worth mentioning that physical education grad Don Nelson (yes, that Don Nelson), didn't receive his degree until 2012, fifty years after he first enrolled at Iowa.

G - John Stockton
G - Bob Cousy
F - Oscar Robertson
F - Bob Pettit
C - Bob Lanier
6th Man - Joe Dumars
Missed the cut: Jerry Lucas, Michael Finley, Phil Ford, Reggie Theus, Calvin Natt, Matt Bonner, Kevin Grevey, Dan Rounfield, Etan Thomas, Rick Mahorn, Clarence Weatherspoon, Kerry Kittles, Matt Harpring, Jeff Mullins, Larry Smith, John Salley*

Before we get into how great this team is, and how all six players are Hall of Famers (and a seventh, Jerry Lucas, didn't even make the cut), let's face facts:

Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit, as great as they were, still did most of their damage in an era in which black players were only allowed to enter the league in limited numbers. In 1962, for example, less than a third of the NBA's players were black and no team had more than four. The same caveat applies to Robertson, but to a much lesser extent because he didn't start his career until 1961 (Cousy and Pettit played the bulk of their careers in the 1950s).

Also, Cousy (37.5%) and Pettit (43.6%) would have been miserable shooters by today's standards. Granted, it was a different era, the game was played differently, and so on and so on. But when you're comparing players across eras, you have to at least take those sorts of things into consideration.

With that out of the way, let's recognize the greatness here. Pettit, Robertson, Cousy, and Stockton were all 11-time All-NBA performers. Robertson's career averages are insane. Not only did he shoot 48.5% for his career (in an era when the FG% was generally much lower), but he also put up 25.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game. Stockton's numbers are amazing as well: he shot at a 51.5% clip while averaging 10.5 assists and 2.2 steals per game. Even the weak spots on this team had stellar careers. Lanier never made an All-NBA team, but he averaged a 20/10 for his career. Dumars was an outstanding three point shooter who doubled as a lock-down defender (he was named to 5 All-Defensive teams). Simply put, it's tough to find a weakness.

So what sort of juggernaut could possibly defeat this team?

G - Grant Hill
G - Reggie Miller
F - Billy Cunningham
F - Bill Walton
C - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
6th Man - Bill Bradley
Missed the cut: Raef LaFrentz, Andrew Declercq, Adonal Foyle, Alvin Attles**

Was this entire countdown just history boosterism dressed in the guise of NBA fandom?


But let me submit my case for why History is number one.

First: Kareem is the second-best NBA player to receive a college degree. And the best (Michael Jordan) is not represented on any of these teams (more on that here). I'm a firm believer that if you have an unstoppable big man, then all other things being somewhat equal, the unstoppable big man wins. Kareem, a six-time MVP, is clearly superior to Lanier. The only question is if the rest of his team can compete with the Business squad. Which leads me to...

Second: all six players are Hall of Famers. Billy Cunningham, nicknamed the "Kangaroo Kid" for his leaping ability, was named to four All-NBA teams, then switched to the ABA and won an MVP. At 6'6 and rangy, he could match up with Oscar Robertson. Grant Hill, named to five All-NBA teams, would take on the primary ball-handling role, something he did for the first seven years of his career anyway. Reggie Miller's penchant for clutch shots and his reputation as one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history is well known. Bill Walton's NBA career was cut short by injury, but he is still known as one of the best passing big men of all time.

Imagine an offense centered on a high-low game with Walton at the elbow and Kareem working the low post. Cunningham would be screening, cutting, and hitting the boards, Miller would be the floor spacer, and Hill would take on the PG duties. Off the bench you'd have Bradley, the well-rounded SF who was good at most aspects of the game.

While Business would still have the advantage at the guard and wing spots, surely History would make up for it with its dominating play in the paint, its superior critical thinking skills, and/or its leftist critique of the bourgeoisie capitalism embraced by Business. Right?


*Three guys in the "Missed the cut" list for the Sociology team actually had Social Science degrees.
**Alvin Attles had degrees in both history and physical education.

Coming tomorrow, part three: a look at the unique college degrees that NBA players have received, and a statistical overview of the distribution of degrees.

Links to three other basketball-related posts I've done:
1) A look back at the Kansas City-Omaha Kings
2) Reflecting on the 1990 NBA Draft
3) Jesse 'Cab' Renick, the American Indian U.S. Olympic Basketball Captain

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fifteen Best NBA Teams Of All Time...If Those Teams Were Organized By Players' College Degrees

This was originally posted in 2014. It has since been updated to reflect Shaka Smart's new home and Kevin Johnson's newly unveiled depravity.

Last week while reading an article about VCU  Texas coach Shaka Smart, I was reminded once again that Smart has a history degree. Every time I find out that famous people studied history in college, I get excited.

As an NBA diehard, I also began to wonder what college degrees have been most popular among the NBA's best players. A few hours later, this post was the result: a list of the top 15 NBA teams of all time, if those teams were composed only of players who earned the same college degree.

But before I get to the list, a couple quick notes.

1) I'll let others cite Elden Campbell and the recent North Carolina academic scandal to pontificate on the legitimacy of NBA players' degrees. The fact is, most professional athletes do not receive degrees, and for good reason: they want to get out of the exploitative NCAA system as quickly as possible. I want to recognize and celebrate those players who managed to get a degree while also making some money for themselves with their basketball ability.

2) At the same time, I'm not trying to suggest that all NBA players need to get a college degree, or that a college degree is the best measurement of one's intellectual ability. It won't, for example, guarantee that you can tell the difference between a "2009" and "2012" New York Times story when pontificating about Lebron’s lack of a college degree. It also won't give you the good sense not to use the word "pontificate" in back-to-back paragraphs.

3) Finally, some quick notes on my rules for picking the teams:
  • To be represented here, at least 6 NBA players (from any era) had to have the degree.
  • Using my whims, biases, and limited knowledge, I ranked the teams ONLY on the quality of their top six players. I'm measuring quality, not quantity. 
  • If at all possible, teams were formed to make sure that two guards, two forward, and a center were represented, with a guard or forward as the sixth man. 
  • I attempted to put teams together based on "best fit" (i.e. how I think they would play together) rather than simply going off of stats or who was the best one-on-one player. 
  • Since degree programs are not uniform across all universities, I sometimes grouped similar degrees together. For example, I put social work with community studies, because there is often overlap between the two.
  • The teams are ranked in reverse order, from worst to first. 
  • If you'd like to know more about how I compiled this list and what sourced I used, shoot me a message. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Charles Savidge in Nebraska History

I just received word from the good folks at Nebraska History that my article on Charles Savidge, a Progressive Era holiness movement pastor from Omaha, has been posted in PDF format online (it was originally published in the summer 2013 issue).

You can access the article yourself here. And yes, the mustache is absurd, even by Gilded Age standards.

My article is a fairly straightforward biography piece, focusing especially on Savidge's particular holiness movement ideology (or theology if you prefer) and how it manifested itself in various unique reform activities. In a lot of ways, my research on Savidge was the doorway through which I was able to enter into the world of American religion in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. By trying to understand the world as Savidge encountered it, I became interested in exploring other questions from the era: the social gospel, religion in the American West, urbanization, romance and love, mass media marketing strategies, interracial religious spaces, and more.

When I re-read the piece earlier today, I couldn't help but wince at my sentence construction, at the scholarship I did not interact with, and at all the other instigators of published-writers remorse. Yet, I also knew that I did probably the best I could for where I was at two years ago as a scholar. I've since started work towards my PhD and have continued to learn and grow and develop. Hopefully in two years I'll look back at work I am doing now with similar feelings of accomplishment and sheepishness.

By the way, for anyone who might be interested, I've previously posted a number of short pieces on Charles Savidge here on the blog. You can access them by clicking this link.   

Monday, February 17, 2014

Zach Lowe, Graduate Student in History

It all started a few weeks ago when my favorite NBA writer Zach Lowe posted a piece on Grantland titled "The Life and Death of Fandom." In the article Lowe wrote about his transition from being a die-hard Boston Celtics fan to a dispassionate reporter of NBA basketball. The Celtics now are dead to Lowe, as far as he's concerned. Wins or losses elicit no emotions. But he used to have a favorite player with the Celtics, back in the 2000s when Paul Pierce "was struggling to find himself" and Lowe felt the same. The old flicker of fandom came back briefly for Lowe last month when he watched a Paul Pierce tribute video before the Celtics-Nets game, leading him to write the piece. 

The article offered a uniquely personal look at Lowe, a writer who Bill Simmons jokes is like Spock due to his cold, calculating basketball analysis. And hidden within the piece were some innocuous biographical details. Lowe wrote: "I was a wannabe journalist who didn’t have the guts to pursue the career path, so I hopped around in random directions -- from teaching high school, to chasing a PhD in history, to covering high school football in Virginia just to see how it felt."

Lowe's revelation that he was once a PhD student in history fascinated me. Maybe it was because I already admired Lowe's writing, and here was a connection. In a weird way I was connecting to Lowe in the same way that he had connected to Pierce - as a fan. I was looking at someone I admire, and trying to see in myself similarities.

The story could end there, but twitter and my shamelessness (combined with that of fellow PhD students) intervened. I decided to make it my mission to figure out where Lowe had studied history and what he had studied. After a few failed attempts in the past few weeks to get a response, Lowe was finally gracious enough to play along and briefly answer my pestering inquiries. I've posted the relevant screen shots below, because why the hell not? 

It all began with this: